Taking Life By the Throat

(Originally published in The Christian Science Monitor on 4/20/2006.)

April is National Poetry Month, and perhaps this is a good time to ask ourselves, why have a Poetry Month? Is it really necessary to devote an entire month to poetry? And what does poetry mean to the average person anyway?

Most people I know, even avid readers of other literary genres, confess to not understanding much of the poetry being written today. It’s too obtuse, the language too rarefied, the metaphors too far out.

Yet most people who like to read also want to like poetry. And understand it. Because when you read a poem that resonates, your whole world can shift. Good poetry illuminates and thrills. A great poem distills the very essence of life and offers it up to us in a language that speaks directly to the heart. Not many of us could express romantic love better than Lord Byron, who penned the words,
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of Cloudless climes and starry skies

Most of us first experience poetry in nursery rhymes. The comforting cadence of the familiar; that which is passed from mother to child and on to the next generation. These earliest rhymes give us a primitive, rhythmic sense of what poetry can feel like.

In school we move on to the study and memorization of Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes. We might continue with Anne Sexton, Gwendolyn Brooks, John Updike, and William Carlos Williams. In the 70s we had Rod McKuen. Yes, that was poetry, although academia turned up its collective nose.

Those in the arts pride themselves on the fact that our country has a Poet Laureate, although I would wager that a majority of Americans wouldn’t know who he or she is.

Poetry is enjoying a resurgence today. Reflecting our culture itself, poetry has become multi-cultural, ethnic, and more accessible to all. Who can ever forget Maya Angelou stunning our nation with the stark beauty of her words and images at a president’s inauguration?

Poets, usually not known for their marketing savvy, are not letting the computer age pass them by. They are setting up web pages, sending their poetry out to a plugged-in audience. It is heartening to note that in our fast-paced, technological society, there is still a need for poetry. For beauty and symmetry, for metaphor and imagery.

But still, do we need an entire month devoted to the promotion of a literary form that many people haven’t been acquainted with since high school English? Why not Essay Month, or Unauthorized Biography Week, or Take A Novel to Work Day?

The poet holds a unique position in our country. As an occupation, “poet” conjures up images of an Ivy League education; of tall lanky fellows in tweed jackets, or skittish females prone to suicide.

But like most generalizations these descriptions don’t apply to real life. The poets I know are everywhere, just like construction workers and teachers. In fact they may be construction workers and teachers. They work with words as a carpenter works with wood, or a gardener plants a plot of flowers. They work on yellow pads propped on kitchen counters, and on commuter trains, scribbling down whatever it is in their heads that must come out.

Poets have come out of their hiding places, and are declaring to the world around them: Poetry is important. Poetry readings in bookstores and cafes are an accepted form of popular entertainment now. Books of poetry even appear on the bestseller lists from time to time. The buzz surrounding Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters was almost as palpable in the literary world as the buzz surrounding the latest installment of Star Wars was in the entertainment community.

Poetry even rises out of the brutality of war. Richard Wilbur started writing poetry seriously when he served as a cryptographer with the U.S. Army’s 36th Infantry Division during World War II. It was his way of organizing a chaotic world, gotten out of hand. And who among us will ever forget the haunting image of John McCrae’s
World War I poem:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row

Robert Frost said, “Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat.” I would submit that the British novelist and journalist Henry Major Tomlinson said it even better, “The reader who is illuminated, is, in a real sense, the poem.”


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