by Carole McKellar
- "For me, the best poetry is short, clear and readable." Carole shares some of her favorite stanzas to celebrate National Poetry Month.
Distillation of an Essence
Started in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets, April is National Poetry Month,. It is the largest literary celebration in the world with schools, libraries, booksellers, and poets championing the importance of poetry in our culture. April, arguably our most beautiful month, is appropriate for celebrating poetry, which frequently evokes the themes of nature and renewal.
When teaching poetry, high schools and colleges tend to focus on structure and interpretation, most often using classical poems of considerable complexity. Who doesn’t feel their eyes glaze over with terms like phonoaesthetics, meter, and symbolism. It’s no wonder that so few people continue reading poetry outside of a mandatory assignment.
Poetry is the distillation of the essence of a thing into a few perfect words. For me, the best poetry is short, clear and readable. It can evoke memories of all five senses, build a vivid image, or express emotion. Credit for my love of poetry goes to my husband, John, who introduced me to the beauty and power of a well-written line. One of his favorite stanzas is:
In masks outrageous and austere
the years go by in single file,
but none has merited my fear,
and none has quite escaped my smile.
from ‘Let No Charitable Hope’ by Eleanor Wylie
The movie, ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’, was a popular comedy in the 1990’s that seems an unlikely promoter of poetry. I remember being moved to tears with the recitation of W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues’. Who can forget the lines:
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever. I was wrong.
If you are not familiar with it, you really must read the rest of this beautiful poem.
A few years ago I started keeping a book of poems that move me, make me laugh, or simply startle me with their simplicity. The first selection in my book is ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ by Wendell Berry.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Most of the poems in my book were written in the twentieth century or later and none are very long. My choices are whimsical, and a few have not passed the test of time. However, I frequently take the book down and read a selection or glue in a new favorite. Billy Collins and Mary Oliver are well represented. Collins’ ‘Litany’ makes me smile every time I read it, which is often. Oliver’s poems make me appreciate life in a world of stunning beauty. I’m no scholar of the form, but I contend that you needn’t struggle with a poem to divine a meaning. These lines from ‘Mysteries, Yes’ by Mary Oliver are a soothing balm:
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds
will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.
Haiku is a more recent obsession. I can’t recall where I read about Kobayashi Issa, an eighteenth century Japanese poet, but he ignited my interest in composing haiku poems. I seldom write them down, but I love attempting to tell a story in three lines. Here is an Issa haiku poem that I particularly enjoy:
my dead mother--
every time I see the ocean
When Katrina destroyed the homes of many of my co-workers at school, the faculty who were spared gave us a ‘shower’ to replace household items. I turned to a poem, ‘Kindness’ by Naomi Shihab Nye to express my thanks. The poem begins:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
And it ends:
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
On March 11, 2015 the Irish President announced ‘A Poem for Ireland’, which Irish citizens chose from thousands of nominated poems. The winner is Seamus Heaney’s ‘When all the others were away at Mass’. What can you say about a country which puts poetry ‘firmly at the heart of the national conversation’?
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent toward my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives--
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.
Those few lines tell a story as powerful as told in full-length novels. ‘A Poem for Ireland’ makes me wonder what America’s Poem could be. Would you vote for ‘Song of Myself’ by Walt Whitman or ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou? The discussion would be more productive than what passes for political debate these days.
Poetry is amazingly accessible thanks to the internet. The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor publishes a poem a day that can be sent to your inbox.The Academy of American Poets allows you browse thousands of poems by occasion, theme or form. Search ‘National Poetry Month’ and you get suggestions for celebrating in April.
Of particular interest to me is‘Poem in Your Pocket Day’ to be celebrated on April 30. I’ve copied some of my favorite poems to leave around Bay St. Louis to be picked up and read by others, who then do likewise. I challenge everyone reading this to find and share a favorite poem with someone this month.
Dear Poet Contest for Students in grades five through twelve! Deadline, April 30th!
Below are the contest rules and two of the videos of poetry readings. Find full details and all the videos here.
For National Poetry Month 2015, we present Dear Poet, a multimedia education project that invites young people in grades five through twelve to write letters in response to poems written and read by some of the award-winning poets who serve on the Academy of American Poets Board of Chancellors.
Students—to participate in this year’s Dear Poet project, watch the videos below of Chancellors reading and discussing one of their poems. Then, write them a letter in response and send it by post or email to the Academy of American Poets, 75 Maiden Lane, Suite 901, New York, NY 10038 or email@example.com by April 30, 2015. Please include your name and the name of the poet to whom you’ve written. We will consider all letters for publication on Poets.org in May 2015. And our Chancellors will reply to select letters of their choosing.