Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes.
Happy National Poetry Month! I don’t discuss poetry much here, mostly because I don’t represent it and I don’t want to confuse anyone. But as a reader, I love poetry, and I believe that writers of every stripe should read poetry as often as possible. It bends the brain in new directions, looks at the world through a different sort of lens, and sings to the soul in varying rhythms. Plus poets know all the best vocabulary words.
When I was seven or eight, my mother bought me a giant anthology of poetry geared for children but that included plenty of poems originally intended for adults. It was a giant hardcover off the dollar book table, with a torn book jacket, but we brought it home and my mother made a book cover out of some gorgeous old wrapping paper, and inside the pages were pristine and illustrated. Many of the poems had a narrative structure, or else a familiar rhyming pattern, or were only a stanza or two long. It was my first introduction to Emily Dickinson and Ogden Nash, to “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Longfellow and to many others, and it made an indelible impression.
I loved how much thought and story could be condensed into such a small package, how entire stories could reveal themselves in a few short paragraphs — while rhyming, no less, though I liked the poems that didn’t rhyme, too. And although I was already a reader who could happily devote entire days to curling up with a book, I appreciated the quick fix of poetry. I could finish reading an entire poem between the time my mother called me down to dinner and the time she actually expected me at the table. It was also easy to keep all the details of something that compact in my mind, to turn over and contemplate in a way I couldn’t with a full-length novel. A poem, once read, belonged to me in a way other reading material didn’t.
In fourth grade, my reading teacher announced a year-long introduction to poetry. Around our regular book assignments and free reading, we would be doing an ongoing poetry unit that basically consisted of standing before the class and reading a pre-chosen poem out loud. Once every couple of weeks, we would devote a class period to poetry readings. Kids would sign up to read ahead of time, choose their poem, and then when the time came, read it to the class. You didn’t need to memorize it, but you did need to read it through beforehand so that you wouldn’t stutter and stumble through it on the actual day. And even better, our teacher would be reading aloud, also. I can’t say I recall much of what the other students read, but I do remember the day our teacher read “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes (which I was later delighted to realize was in my own enormous poetry collection). The poem itself is highly dramatic, and she played it up to the hilt. I had no idea what a highwayman was prior to that day, had no idea poetry could make me feel anxious and put me on the edge of my seat. Even for someone who already enjoyed poetry, it was a revelation.
Not all my academic experiences with poetry were wonderful or inspiring. Poetry, like any kind of reading material, comes in all shapes and sizes. Some of it is difficult, like wading through quicksand. Some of it is plain incomprehensible. But the bug bit early enough, and firmly enough, that I never gave up. I went through all the typical adolescent experiences you might expect; scribbling poems in my journal, writing them for class assignments, editing them for the high school literary magazine. I took far more English classes than required for my university degree — taking both the mandatory courses and then using them for electives as well — and unsurprisingly, there were a fair number of poetry courses along the way. I added John Donne and Milton, Eliot and Bishop, Auden and Yeats to my list of loves, but also Margaret Atwood, Nikki Giovanni, and other living writers.
Outside the academic confines, it’s more difficult to discover “new” poetry — either classics I’ve yet to come across or modern writers, though certain standbys area always lurking on library shelves or well-stocked bookstores. Word of mouth, the internet, and the occasional literary magazine provide new names to check out. Some of my favorite recents finds were the result of an online writers’ loop where we instituted a periodic Poetry Day, and members shared poems and/or poets they love with the group. They introduced me to Denise Levertov, Anna Akhmatova, Sharon Olds…
Poetry still serves as a small escape. It is a treat, a pocket of peace in a sea of work and work-related reading. Sometimes I crave the beauty of a lyrical verse, sometimes the humor of something short and silly. It is an easy prescription, a quick getaway, a balm.
Do you read poetry? Does it affect your own writing? Who are your favorite poets? Who would you recommend?