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National Poetry Month: Honor our poets by listening

Robin William in “Dead Poets Society.” Touchstone Pictures Robin William in “Dead Poets Society.” Touchstone Pictures

What month other than April could possibly be designated National Poetry Month?

For centuries, poets have celebrated this coming of spring and of nature resurrected. Geoffrey Chaucer kicks off “The Canterbury Tales” with this salute to the fourth month: 

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licóur

Of which vertú engendred is the flour;

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Fast forward Chaucer’s Middle English 700 years, try to maintain the rhyme, and we have:

When that April with his showers sweet

The drought of March has pierced root deep,

And bathed every vein with such liquor

That virtue engendered is the flower …. 

Take the time machine to the 19th century, and we hear Robert Browning singing April’s praises in “Home Thoughts, from Abroad:”

O, to be in England

Now that April ‘s there,

And whoever wakes in England

Sees, some morning, unaware,

That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf

Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,

While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough

In England — now!

In “The Waste Land,” T.S. Eliot took a more jaundiced view of the month of showers and sunshine:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain ….

Nevertheless, April is the perfect time to celebrate humankind’s poetry. Of all the months, May with its corsage of flowers and October with its gown of colorful leaves come closest to winning that honor, but April is perfect, the break-point for the frozen earth, ice, and snow of winter. Even in places like Maine and Wisconsin, the land unlocks, and as e.e. cummings once observed, the world becomes “mud-lucious.”

And just as the sun removes winter’s grip from fields and forests, so too can poetry encourage us, bring us laughter and the release of tears, or inspire us to continue a journey and to fight the good fight.

Consider Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night,” which begins this way:

Do not go gentle into that good night, 

Old age should burn and rave at close of day; 

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Those of us teetering on the edge of old age — I am one of you — or those who have walked even deeper into the cavern of years may rage if they so wish, but if we look at these three lines closely, we see that Thomas refers to death as “that good night.” So even as we approach the dying of the light, rage or not, Thomas wants us to understand that death is not to be feared. Most of us, I suspect, hope to “go gentle into that good night.”

In addition to death and natural beauty, poets have long devoted themselves to writing about love. Young people, for example, who have suffered heartbreak in a failed relationship, might find some solace in this poem by A.E. Housman: 

When I was one-and-twenty

I heard a wise man say,

“Give crowns and pounds and guineas

But not your heart away;

Give pearls away and rubies

But keep your fancy free.”

But I was one-and-twenty,

No use to talk to me.

 

When I was one-and-twenty

 I heard him say again,

“The heart out of the bosom

Was never given in vain;

’Tis paid with sighs a plenty

And sold for endless rue.”

And I am two-and-twenty,

And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

Meanwhile, the old among us might take fond consolation from a long-ago love as pictured in William Butler Yeats’s “When You Are Old:”

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

 

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

 

And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

So how do we celebrate and honor National Poetry Month? Well, we can read poetry, preferably aloud, to our children, our other family members, our friends, and even to ourselves. We can go to our personal bookshelves, to the public library, or to our local bookstores, and pick up some volumes of verse.

We can also look for poetry sites online. At poets.org/national-poetry-month, for example, the Academy of American Poets invites us all to join what has become “the biggest literary celebration in the world.” The site offers such resources as a free daily poem in your inbox, posters for the classroom, and all sorts of suggestions as to how to celebrate this event both at home and online.

In the movie “Dead Poets Society,” English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) instructs his students in the importance of poetry with these words:

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

That pretty much nails it. Let’s treat ourselves to some poetry. 

(Jeff Minick reviews books and has written four of his own: two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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