Celebrating National Poetry Month
When April showers get you down, cozy up with a poem and a cup of coffee.
In today’s post, I celebrate the arrival National Poetry Month!
In the opening line of “The Waste Land,” T. S. Eliot dubbed April “the cruelest month.” Seventy-four years after the publication of that masterpiece, the Academy of American poets decided to bring some joy into that cruelest month when they established National Poetry Month. Or maybe they were actually plotting to ensure that students across the country felt the depth of April’s cruelty by encouraging English teachers everywhere to embrace National Poetry Month as a chance to infuse their classrooms with verse.
As an English teacher, I am well aware that English teachers are the worst, traumatizing children with iambic pentameter and dactylic hexameter and ten different names for various types of off-rhyme, so let me begin by apologizing to any fair readers whose literary education turned them off to poetry. In this post, I thought I’d share some great starting points for anyone who is interested in poetry but who feels like they just “don’t get” it.
My own love of poetry began somewhere around third or fourth grade when read I read Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein. His books married several things I loved then and still love now: drawing, humor, rhyme, and sometimes even riddles. I knew right then that I wanted to be just like Shel Silverstein when I grew up. Or rather, I wanted to be like him immediately and I began writing copycat poems and planning the illustrations for my very own book. Alas, I never completed my book of poems and pictures, but I never stopped reading and writing poetry, either.
Because I’m a nerd (which you already knew because, like I said, I’m an English teacher), as I got older and started learning all the technical stuff about poetry—meter and scansion, literary devices with confusing Greek names, complex verse forms with dizzying requirements—I was in heaven, but if I’m totally honest, the poetry I most love to read is the sort that you don’t need a Ph.D. to understand. I like the seemingly simple poems whose elegance lies in their ability to convey someone’s subjective experience in concrete terms that allow me to inhabit that experience for a moment.
Former US poet laureate Billy Collins writes just the sort of poem I’m thinking about. Check out his Ted Talk to see three short animated films of his work.
Contrary to what curmudgeonly old English teachers might have told you, poetry—and what makes a great poem—is highly subjective. What the reader brings to the poem matters as much as the poem itself. If you are new to poetry, I hereby give you permission to like what you like and to discard the rest. In fact, the way into a regular habit of reading poetry depends on it.
For me, there are two simple hallmarks of a great poem:
The words flow together so smoothly that they beg to be spoken aloud for the sheer pleasure of how nice they sound.
The words and/or images are memorable. Phrases (or even whole poems) linger in my head like catchy song lyrics and I can’t quite shake them.
That’s it. It’s that simple. No complicated analysis. No counting syllables or mapping rhyme schemes with letters. No puzzling over layers of meaning to solve the riddle of the poem. No research into obscure allusions.
Freed from all those analytical challenges, I can thumb through whatever volume of poetry is near at hand, dipping in and out of poems until I come across one that catches my attention and makes me linger. I don’t like every poem I read or even every poem by poets I generally admire, but when I land on one I do like, I take my time with it and turn to it again and again.
So, if you’re thinking you want to use this National Poetry Month to give poetry a try, the best place to start is by exploring what you do and don’t like. Grab an anthology and start your day with some poetry while you have your morning coffee. Read a few until you find one you want to pause on, and then reread that one a few times through the day to see if you can figure out what attracted you to it. Keep some notes for yourself about what you like. And remember, you don’t need to feel the slightest bit guilty about not liking a poem, even if it’s a poem other people insist is great!
Personally, I think poetry is best enjoyed in print books, not online, but the internet is certainly full of poetry, so if you don’t own any poetry books to get started with and you aren’t able to make a trip to the local library, the internet is obviously very full of poetry. While random googling can turn up a lot of results, I think it’s helpful to start with reputable websites. Here are some sites to get you started:
For new work by today’s poets:
For a searchable database where you can search classic and contemporary poems by theme, occasion and form:
For poems and educational guides and much more:
For suggestions about how to read a poem out loud and much more:
And finally, here are three of my favorite poems:
The Mortal Limit by Robert Penn Warren
We’re Building the Ship as We Sail It by Kay Ryan
Preludes by T.S. Eliot
I’d love to hear in the comments what your personal criteria for a great poem are, and I’d love to know if you find any poems this month that you fall in love with. Chime in and let’s chat about it! Because the only thing better than finding poems that you like is telling other people about them.
Spreading a little joy is also part of Adele’s mission. So if you’re like us—afraid to read the news to see what fresh hell the day has brought—we invite you to skip the doom scrolling and settle in with one of our stories. Because you know there’s gonna be a happy ending. And if you enjoy our books, please take a moment to leave a rating or review on Amazon. It really helps us out!