“Roses are red. Violets are blue….”
According to the Academy of American Poets’ website (www.poets.org): “National Poetry Month is now held every April, when… libraries, schools and poets around the country band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture.”
However, does poetry matter in today’s society? I think of W. H. Auden, who once wrote: "poetry makes nothing happen” – at least within the world of politics and public affairs. That is, poetry has little effect on the day-to-day lives of Americans, and less effect in the thoughts and deeds of our political leaders.
I think of the critic and essayist Dana Gioia, who wrote: “[Poetry] has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group.” Mr. Gioia stated that this marginalization of poets in our society created a subculture where few have access to poetry, and fewer still celebrate poetry in America.
Yet many of us would argue that poetry does matter. Poetry is, after all, the art of using words and infusing them with their utmost meaning. The power of language is great, and poets articulate moments, and feelings, better than anyone else. Who hasn’t been stirred by Langston Hughes’ Dream Deferred?
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over — like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Poetry keeps our nation's language clear and honest, holding a mirror to our society. Poetry should have a place in our society. I think of Robert Frost at President John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration.
Mr. Frost, because of the sun’s glare, could not read the poem he intended to share with the world, a new poem called “Dedication.” Instead, he recited a poem called “The Gift Outright”:
The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
I think of my children, who kept asking my wife and me, to repeat the nursery rhymes over and over and over again – these rhymes being the first building blocks of poetry. Today, they can’t wait to go to the local library and take out yet another book.
I think of our schoolchildren, who read poetry in our classrooms. The teachers teach them everything from haikus to sonnets.
And I think of us as adults, who’ve lost the sense of the wonder of poetry, the beauty of a perfectly-formed phrase, and the poetic images that stay with us after we’ve read a poem. We grow up, but we don’t necessarily bring our poetry with us, or even the joy of reading.
This is what National Poetry Month does: it reminds us of a poem’s place in our society.