By MARSHA MERCER
After Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March, April brings us National Poetry Month.
One could argue that Black and women’s history, as well as poetry, should be observed all year long, not just for one month, but clustering events over about 30 days does help draw attention to subjects we might otherwise forget.
I figured National Poetry Month was celebrated in April because it was Shakespeare’s birth month or because of T.S. Eliot’s opening line in The Wasteland, “April is the cruellest month . . .”
They probably didn’t hurt, but the Academy of American Poets says Black and women’s history months were the inspiration for National Poetry Month in 1996 to remind people “that poets have an integral role to play in our culture and that poetry matters.”
The academy, despite its governmental-sounding name, is a charitable, membership organization. Marie Bullock was just 23 when she started the academy in her New York apartment in 1934 after studying in France, where she was impressed with the prominent role poets play in French culture.
We’re always hearing that poetry may be dead, but miraculously it survives.
A 2017 survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, the most recent survey, found 12% of adults had read poetry in the previous year. That sounds paltry but was hailed as encouraging news as it meant 28 million adults actually read a poem, and 12% was the highest share of the population to read poetry in 15 years.
Poetry got a boost from President Joe Biden’s inauguration. When Amanda Gorman, a 23-year-old black woman, read her stunning poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at the inauguration – was that only last year? – she became a cultural icon, proving that poetry is alive, vibrant and, yes, cool.
A collection of her poems, “Call Us What We Carry,” was published last December and became a New York Times bestseller.
National Poetry Month has become “the largest literary celebration in the world,” says the academy, which offers resources for celebrating poetry at home or in the classroom on www.poets.org.
These include 30 activities, such as writing a poem, checking out an e-book of poetry from your local library, buying a book of poetry at your local bookstore, and signing up for a Poem-a-Day.
If you’re wondering why bother or what poetry can do for you, Joy Harjo, the Poet Laureate of the United States, has an answer:
“Poetry can make someone fall in love with you. Poetry can make you fall in love with yourself,” Harjo says in the trailer for her online MasterClass on poetic thinking. If that doesn’t make people want to read and write poetry, what will?
Harjo, the first Native American Poet Laureate in U.S. history, will wrap up her third and final year in the post this month with several events to be livestreamed on the Library of Congress’ YouTube channel and Facebook page.
For her signature project, she created “LivingNations, Living Words,” an online presentation and interactive map, to introduce the work of 47 Native Nations poets.
If ever we needed poetry, now is the time. With so much horrible news bombarding us, poetry can be a solace on the page, online or on social media.
People turn to poetry to help make sense of the pandemic, isolation, war and other stresses.
A hopeful prose poem Kitty O’Meara, a retired teacher and chaplain, wrote during the first pandemic lockdown in March 2020 and posted for a small group of her Facebook friends went viral. It begins:
And the people stayed home.
And read books and listened, and rested and exercised,
And made art and played games,
And learned new ways of being and were still.
And listened more deeply.
While some grumpy readers complained O’Meara’s poem reflects a privileged, fantasy view of the earliest lockdown, it rang true with many others. It was turned into a picture book and an operatic solo which Renee Fleming sang and was published in an anthology of pandemic poems.
We can all be grateful for poets as we celebrate poetry this month – and every month.
© 2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.