Editor’s Note: Tess Taylor is the author of the poetry collections “Work & Days,” “The Forage House” and most recently, “Rift Zone” and “Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange.” Views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
In California the tulips and irises have come, the gutter is throaty with rain, and the dawn air is sweet. I don’t know about you, but I am already fantasizing about some small vacation.
It’s been a terrible year, and we need to heal, and it’s easy to feel exhausted and also wayward, to want to get out and find some place to savor the air. Admit it: The inner school kid in you (especially the one who has been stuck home for more than a year) would rather be out playing: maybe with music, maybe with friends, maybe with mud, maybe with words.
Maybe you just want to find a good bench to sit on, with a book. You long for a little more time to daydream. You try to steal five more minutes outside at lunchtime. You want to close your eyes in the sun. That’s OK: It’s been many months of brutal duties. We all want to feel the life inside our lives. We all long to be set free of what is dutiful.
Perhaps that’s what makes now such a good time for National Poetry Month, and why it’s a good thing to take some time this year – of all years – to savor it. For those of us who love poetry, poetry offers just that – time to play; time to daydream, a bit of word music, time off from what’s rote. Even on busy days, reading just one poem can seem to create a bit more internal space, a way to stretch time, just as the daylight time lengthens in spring.
Hence, in April — a month devoted to poetry. Never mind that the poet TS Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month/ breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.” April is a time,\ where, cruelly or kindly, a lot of organizations that don’t always talk about poetry find a way to stick a poem somewhere, and a few more newspapers review poetry, and many poets read and launch books.
April is also a month when, returning to TS Eliot’s words, we, his readers, can savor the “m”s and “d”s of mud and memory, death and desire. This isn’t about cruelty, it’s about life: Say the poem, and you can’t help but wake your mind and your mouth up a bit.
For me, poetry is all about this waking up. It’s about wanting to be awake inside language, feeling more alive in the face of mysterious, urgent lines like “Like the memory of a monarch landing / in the palm of the hand the summers end / contains no promise so its moment is held only briefly” (That’s Vievee Francis); or “I am an invention – dark alarm,/ Braierus’s hands striking the bells of my blood./ Whose toll am I?” (That’s Natalie Diaz.)
I love the urgent careening monologue in “Time hath, my Lord a wallet at his back/ in which to collect alms for oblivion.” (That’s Shakespeare, in “Troilus and Cressida.”) I am delighted to journey abroad in the lines, “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree” (That’s WB Yeats.)
One of the beautiful things about poems is that if you enter a poem that pleases you, you can travel with it quite a bit. “There is no Frigate like a Book” (That’s Emily Dickinson.) Indeed, even though Yeats, in his poem, never actually makes it to Innisfree (the poem ends in the very gray city in which it began) the words themselves fortify a wonderful imaginary perch. The beautiful voyage is made of air and sound. It’s the greenest (and safest) form of travel: Imagine a voyage powered purely by syllables. But it’s true: Poems can reroute your day. They help you assemble some new sense of the possible.
I know that a lot of people feel that they don’t get poems. Some people act as if they are afraid that they’ll be tested on the meaning of iambic pentameter, or they’ll have to say what the apple or the dagger symbolizes, and then it’s not fun anymore, because there’s some mad and stringent teacherly voice making it seem as if there’s a way get poems wrong.
I know this terrible B-minus feeling: One year when I was writing a book of poems that turned out pretty well, I had to first dismiss the joyless critic on my shoulder. (It’s just too late for the beautiful, he kept saying with a snarky, sad bit of side eye, and I couldn’t write another thing until I mentally banished him to a small jar on the corner of my desk where he could scowl to himself.)
For the record: One of the best things about poetry is that there is no subject too small, and it is never too late for at least something to be beautiful.
I’ll be honest: For those of us who are working poets, and who hope that people will read and celebrate and be nourished by poems all the time, National Poetry Month can also feel a bit silly. I mean: What happens to poems the other 11 months of the year?
In a world threatened by climate change, every day is Earth Day. In a world where African American history is American history, it feels like we can’t possibly relegate its importance to Black History Month. And since poetry is a place where we explore and sharpen the tools by which language gains meaning – music, metaphor, rhythm, rhyme – every day is poetry day. The life of poetry is inseparable from the life of language, and from the language of ordinary speech.
That said, I believe in gateways, and if you’re one of those people who hasn’t yet paused to rest in the good symphony a poem can make, well, maybe you can do that this April. Put another way: Come on through, give yourself a few moments to savor something that calls you. Or go hear some poetry! I’m giving a reading Thursday night and you can check out readings all month – a very abbreviated introduction to many good events follows below.
There are a lot of places to begin, to go deeper. Robert Frost once said, “A poem is best read in the light of all the other poems ever written,” and what I think he meant by that was “start somewhere, read one poem, and then just read more.” One poem, then another, then another. Let your pleasure guide you.
That’s the wonderful thing about poems: Your pleasure will guide you. You can read poems to find out what they mean, you can read them to take pleasure in how they mean. But perhaps as importantly, you can enjoy what a poem lets you excavate inside yourself.
As you read, watch yourself, too. Do you feel yourself breathing differently? Do you remember your own life in more vivid colors? Are you, even momentarily, more aware of your own longing?
As the poet Ross Gay says: “The more you study delight, the more delight there is to study… I felt my life to be more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight.” I add: “Come through! Read poems! Then read more.”
A very select list of resources for National Poetry Month
(for more follow @tessathon)
- Academy of American Poets: 30 Ways to Celebrate National Poetry Month at Home or Online and Dear Poet 2021
- Alaska Quarterly Review with Nicky Beer, Mary Peelen & Alexandra Teague
- Blacksmith House Poetry Series
- Beyond Baroque
- Emily Dickinson Museum: A Poetry Month Tour of the Archives
- Magic City Poetry Festival
- Kenyon Review Reading Series
- LitLife Poetry Festival
- LOGOS Gathering with Julie E. Bloemeke + Jane Hirshfield
- New Orleans Poetry Festival
- Sarah Lawrence College Poetry Festival
- Stokes Center for Creative Writing
- Split This Rock