For most folks, there is little discernable irony in the fact that April is National Poetry Month and that the second most famous quotation regarding April is: “April is the cruelest month,” by T. S. Eliot. In fact, if there is any irony, one might describe it with the delightful, if cliche-ish, modifier “delicious.”
Why, oh why, is poetry perceived as so very difficult? Perhaps, to start out with, consider how it is taught. Or, to be a tad more precise, how it is not taught. A poem is treated as an artifact, a piece of history, a vessel laden with symbology, an elite conundrum solvable only in the aerie realms of academe, instead of a method of communicating from one human being (the poet) to another (the listener/reader).
Yes, poetry is mysterious, but not in and of itself; life, too, is mysterious and that is what the best poetry reflects. Though there are many folks who claim to know the meaning of life, for most of the rest of us it is an unsolvable riddle. In this sense, a poem is not an answer; a poem is a rephrasing of the question. In fact, for my money, the bottom line for all good poetry is the constant rephrasing of this very question. If this is truly the case, then what is it that makes poetry so different from prose?
One essential difference is language and I would describe the language of poetry as a more visceral, more emotional language than prose. Poetry is less literal, more figurative in its construction and execution. And, for me, poetry is most important precisely because it addresses the mystery of life in an intuitive, “non-rational” way. In a very real sense, what it means is beside the point.
As I’m sure you’re sensing, this particular entry could go on and on; suffice it to say that there are two very good books, both with the same title, that examine this idea in depth and I highly recommend them both: one is by Molly Peacock, the other by Edward Hirsch.
The very best poems speak with both clarity and resonance about life’s big issues: love, faith, death, and the ever elusive meaning of it all. One of the single best points of entry into poetry is the website The Writer’s Almanac. Part of National Public Radio, The Writer’s Almanac is a daily compendium of important literary and historical facts and anniversaries, hosted by Garrison Keillor. Each day, at the end of a short podcast (5 minutes), a single poem is featured that is at once accessible and resonant. It is a delightful, inquisitive way to be introduced to great poetry, both contemporary and classic, via reading, radio, or podcast. Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, Gary Snyder, Jane Kenyon, Billy Collins, Barbara Hamby, Louis McKee, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti have all been featured in recent weeks. Listening for just a week is intriguing; it also can be addictive.
It most certainly is a fine way to commemorate National Poetry Month.