Poetry's Many Gifts

Like most folks, when I was in grade school, I had to memorize poetry. I can still recite the beginning of Joyce Kilmers’ poem “Trees”: “I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree.” But not much else. Sadly.

Still, as a college student I learned to appreciate poetry, and I started writing poetry seriously about seven years ago. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but my heart was in it, and so I poured out free verses like water. Then I went back to school to get my master’s degree in creative writing. Though I was studying creative nonfiction as an emphasis, I indulged myself by “genre-hopping” into poetry for one semester. And discovered a beautiful world of words and imagery, rhythm and rhyme, and the power of poetics.

April is National Poetry Month, and I wish I knew how to make more people come to appreciate poetry’s potential to impact lives, change hearts, move souls. The other day Santa Barbara announced its new city poet laureate, Chryss Yost. She’ll be a wonderful poet laureate, and will ably carry on the work of her predecessors. What I found disheartening, though, were some of the responses to the announcement – anonymous, of course – on a local website. The two-year poet laureate position is an honorary one; it comes with a nominal honorarium of $1,000 per year. Yet many of those who commented seemed incensed that the city would spend any amount of money on something as “frivolous” as poetry. Those people, it seems to me, are most in need of it.

It doesn’t have to be the poetry of our childhoods, stiff and opaque, drilled into our heads by well-meaning teachers. There are many wonderful contemporary poets whose work is both ethereal and down-to-earth, thought-provoking and accessible, lyrical and deeply moving. Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Philip Levine and Ted Kooser are just a few who have been able to widen poetry’s reach with poems that meet us where we live and breathe. There are many others, lesser-known, whose work enlightens and deepens my own appreciation every day. Poets like Dorianne Laux, Cornelius Eady, and our current national poet laureate, Natasha Tretheway.

Writing poetry has enriched my writing. Deep imagery and metaphor and other poetic constructs add immeasurably to my nonfiction and fiction alike. Poetry requires one to think differently about creation, about bringing something into being through creative effort. Poetry is both intangible and essential. Intangible in that the gifts are sometimes oblique and difficult to parse out, and essential because without poetry, society struggles to be something beyond a label for a group of people living in proximity to one another. Poetry helps us define what it means to be human, helps us understand the human condition, which is to say the reason for living.

Here, one of my favorite poets, Edna St. Vincent Millay captures the pain of lost love, and how much more human can that be?

Poets.org has gathered a list of 30 things to do to celebrate National Poetry Month, one of which is to memorize a poem. And if you’re in Santa Barbara, here is a list of Poetry Month happenings.

Help celebrate. Read a poem, write a poem, memorize a poem. Discover the gifts of poetry today.