For National Poetry Month, An Ode to Poetry
When I was a kid, almost every time it was foggy, my dad would recite the poem “Fog” by Carl Sandburg:
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
He recited other poems the way he rattled off sports scores: as if it were everyday, common, normal. I think that sparked my love of poetry.
I certainly developed an interest when I read books that quoted poetry at the beginning. Some books even took their titles from verse: Death Be Not Proud, Of Mice and Men, and countless others. I was always on the lookout for a snippet of poetry that could make a good title for one of my future novels.
As a teen, I sent my own poems to a magazine. I received a polite rejection, a postcard printed with “Triolet on a Line Apocryphally Attributed to Martin Luther” by A. E. Stallings. My brother liked the poem so much, he pinned it to his corkboard and kept it there until he moved out.
But while I couldn’t quite write poetry, I devoured books of it. In college I hid away in library stacks, pondering over text on pages yellowed and perfumed by age. I read poetry with the curiosity of newborns studying their parents’ faces for the first time: What is this?
April is National Poetry Month, but if you ask T. S. Eliot, it is “the cruellest month.” In my area, April means the snow recedes to mud, buds appear and bloom, leaves stretch out (as if waking) and start reaching for the sun. April, like poetry, leaves some of us better off than we started.
The earliest surviving poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is about a king’s grief following a friend’s death — and his search for eternal life. He didn’t find it, but the story lives on (unlike Ozymandias’s great works).
The Bible contains poetry, notably the The Song of Songs. I was always instructed to read it as a religious metaphor, but to me it seemed like a description of pure love.
There are almost as many types of poetry as you can imagine. There’s a type of poem about the dawn (aubade), about trying to convince people to live for the moment (carpe diem), and a poem meant to be read at weddings (epithalamium).
There’s the haiku, with syllables of 5–7–5, meant to be a snapshot of nature. The acrostic, a favorite to teach children poetry: you write a word down a page, and use each letter to create a new word.
A limerick lends itself easily to humor (sometimes crude humor). And, for the those who like to freestyle, there’s blank verse.
Elegies are poems meant for mourning the dead, but are appreciated by the living. A. E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young” is a particular favorite of mine, and always left me mesmerized by the line about people who outlive their accomplishments: “Runners whom renown outran / And the name died before the man.”
For extra points, try translating poetry into a different language. Pablo Neruda’s “Ode with a Lament” reads differently to me in the original Spanish “Oda con una Lamenta” than it does in translations: they often describe the horses as “ashen” or “ash-gray,” but I prefer to think of ceniciento as just “gray” to better match and fit the rhythm: “gray horses and yellow dogs.” Is it literal? No. Does it work? Yes, I think so.
Sometimes the interesting part is not just the poems themselves, but the stories surrounding them, or inspiring them.
Emily Dickinson intended for her poems to be burned after her death; her sister Lavinia saved them from the flames and published them. William Carlos Williams (“so much depends upon a red wheel barrow”), a doctor, reportedly scribbled some of his poems on prescription pads.
My school, and the books I found, focused particularly on American and British poetry and history. Maya Angelou wrote anthems of civil rights. Mitsuye Yamada’s poems describe her internment and discrimination in World War II. Wilfred Owen wrote about the horrors of war.
But poetry is also modern, documenting everyday, inescapable moments.
Juliet Kono wrote about the pain of seeing a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease in “Love Letters.”
Oliver de la Paz’s struggle to understand his son in “Autism Screening Questionnaire — Speech and Language Delay” is familiar to many of us.
And poetry can share lighthearted moments, as in Dorianne Laux’s “Bird.”
People write dissertations and books about poetry; they write music (lyrics are another form of poetry); they quote it and live it.
We use poetry as a banquet to spread our feelings. It documents our aches, yearns, whispers, shouts. It’s an invitation to feel another’s pain, love, bafflement, and beauty — an invitation without anything expected in return.
It almost makes me want to write poetry — but maybe I’ll keep it for myself, lest I get any postcards.