“Most joyful let the poet be, it is through him that all men see.”~ William Ellery Channing.
When last did you read a good poem? Today is the last Friday in April, National Poetry Month. Many of us can recite from heart poems learned in our childhood. Whether they are the traditional celebration of nature “I wandered lonely as a cloud…” or a call to proud defiance “And death shall have no dominion…” I am sure that each of us can stop and recite a verse or two.
There were poets who ignited political activism. Claude McKay (“If we must die, let it not be like hogs…”) not only spoke to the oppression of the sons of enslaved Africans, he was also allegedly quoted by Winston Churchill as England went to war with Germany. Yet the same poet (who hailed from Clarendon, Jamaica, my own adopted home) could also soliloquize on the beauty of “The poinsettia’s red, blood-red in warm December.” In a verse or two McKay could summon the hillsides of Jamaica from his cold room in Harlem. He could sing a love song, recreate history, or inspire awareness. All in a few lines.
There are poets whose words have founded philosophies. Robert Frost chose “the road less traveled” and M. Scott Peck wrote a best-selling self-help book on the concept. There are poets to be found in the Bible – whether you chant a Psalms or Sing a Song of Solomon to your beloved, you are reciting the thoughts of someone who died so many centuries ago. And yet they speak through you today.
In high school I fell in love with (and in love to) the words of Khalil Gibran. His words were read at my wedding ceremony, and then I read them (through tears) at my own daughter’s wedding. What power is it that these poets have? To distill emotions, to draw pictures in a few words, to create a world in a few lines of verse.
This week I was listening to the Diane Rehm’s show on NPR, a woman whose job defies her neurological speech problems. She was interviewing three poets. One has written a book entitled A Poetry of Witness, a title which describes the role of the poet so well. There was a suggestion that politicians should be more like poets, choosing their words with care. For that is what separates the poets from the rest of us. They do not throw words at problems. They do not ‘misspeak’, clarifying after the fact, taking back or regretting. Before their work is shared with us, it is reworked and reconsidered. It is tweaked and rebraided and reworded. Care is taken to consider the sound, the impact, the use of each one of the words, the lines, the verses. A caller to the program suggested a definition she had once heard, that a poem is the most amount of energy in the least amount of words.
If we had to put that amount of thought into a facebook posting, a tweet, a provoked response to an ignorant other, there would be less conflict in the world! Imagine if Putin had to express his intentions about the Ukraine in verse. Would he think harder, consider more carefully? Think of any celebrity who has gotten into trouble by casually flinging out an opinion. If they had said it in verse, perhaps they could have saved themselves embarrassment (perhaps Mel Gibson would be less of a joke today).
When last did you read a poem? If your life is too busy to stop and appreciate a poet’s lyrics, perhaps you need to reevaluate your priorities. I recently heard of a poet Richard Caddel who wrote his last book of poetry after being diagnosed with cancer. His book was entitled “Writing in the Dark”, he would write sitting outside in the dark, on a backlit palm pilot. His verses are carefully crafted, each word, each punctuation carefully chosen, the verses themselves are designed for visual as well as auditory impact.
We all think we can write poetry. Who hasn’t dabbled in the art? It is not until you read the genius of good poetry that you realize the simple truth, it takes a real artist who is patient, who is willing to sweat carefully over each letter, to create meaningful and beautiful poetry.
On the radio program one of the poets reminded us that there is a poet we all know, John Newton. He was an 18th Century sailor who was involved in the Slave Trade for many years. During a stormy night at sea, when he feared death, he underwent a spiritual conversion, and eventually became ordained in the church, and became actively involved in the fight for the abolition of slavery. The poem he wrote was “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…” It was much later that it was put to music and became the uniting, comforting, motivating hymn that it is today.
So celebrate this month by reading some poetry, whether it is a favorite poem from childhood, or one of the powerful modern poets. Read poetry to your children and grandchildren, help them to fall in love with a lyric and a line. Let them hear the cadence and the song, the chuckling sound of the alliterative phrase, let them learn poems and through poems, for how else do they learn?
Have a wonderfully poetic weekend, family! May your words be as carefully selected as a poet; may they be received as graciously as the lines of a well-loved sonnet.
And if you have the urge – write your own! You may discover a hidden talent yearning to be set free!