It’s here again — National Poetry Month. If you were taught, as poet Billy Collins joked, that you had to “tie a poem to a chair and beat a confession out of it ... to find out what it really means,” you might flinch at the very idea.
But in this pandemic year, more and more people have found themselves turning to poetry not only to help face their pain, but also to remember moments of light. Thanks to people who shared some of their own favorites this month, I found Ashland poet Angela Howe Decker’s poem about waking to watch her young boys who have crept into their parents’ bed “like cats or friendly spirits” and before dawn are “great wizards in small bodies, / arms outstretched above their heads, / drawing deep swells of breath and / pulling the morning toward us.”
And January Gill O’Neil’s poem “In the Company of Women”: “Make me laugh over coffee, / make it a double, make it frothy / so it seethes in our delight. / ... Let the bitterness sink to the bottom of our lives. / Let us take this joy to go.”
If you’re looking for poems that lift your spirits, you could try Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Kindness,” Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things,” or almost anything by Ted Kooser, who is sharing new poems on Facebook nearly every day.
Last month, I found myself sitting on the floor beside the bookcase where I’d shelved the books I brought home from my mother’s bedroom. Here was Carl Sandburg’s “Harvest Poems,” complete with the receipt from my hometown’s Owl Rexall Drug. Forty-seven cents — the receipt dated March 21, a day that has since been designated as World Poetry Day and the same day, in 2021, that I happened to be reading.
Was it a coincidence that I could hear her quoting Sandburg, telling the wrens nesting just above our door, “People of the eaves, I wish you good morning, I wish you a thousand thanks”?
In “The Pocket Book of Verse” she had bookmarked “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” “To a Skylark,” “Jenny Kissed Me,” and Robert Frost’s “Two Look at Two.” Again, I could almost hear her voice, reading that poem to me when my teenaged life seemed too much to bear. She is still offering me guidance; the slip of paper she kept on her kitchen bulletin board and that is now on mine reminds me — in lines she copied from Frost’s poem about a glass of cider — “I’d catch another bubble if I waited. / The thing was to get now and then elated.”
Poetry can help us confront hard truths, too. I think of “Facing It,” Yusef Kumenyakaa’s poem about visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. Or this from Joy Harjo’s “A Postcolonial Tale”: “The children were in school / learning subtraction with guns.”
Wendy Rose’s poem about the Wounded Knee Massacre — inspired by the art auction of shirts and leggings and cradleboards stripped from those frozen bodies — gives voice to a mother’s unspeakable grief. “Would’ve put her in my mouth like a snake / if I could, would’ve turned her into a bush / or rock if there’d been magic enough / to work such changes. Not enough magic / to stop the bullets, not enough magic / to stop the scientists, not enough magic / to stop the money.”
What poetry does at its best, I suppose, is help us address the question Mary Oliver asks in “A Summer Day”: “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? / Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
We know this much: Poetry can be a path toward truth. “Say it plain: that many have died for this day,” Elizabeth Alexander reminded us at Barack Obama’s inauguration. And we won’t soon forget Amanda Gorman at the podium in January inspiring a shaken nation. “Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true, / that even as we grieved, we grew, that even as we hurt, we hoped, that even as we tired, we tried.”
Stay strong. And happy National Poetry Month.