Saturday, April 08, 2006

Celebrating Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month. Already this month I’ve heard this mentioned several times—admittedly most often on National Public Radio. I thought I might share some of my thoughts about poetry—things I’ve gleaned in my study, writing and reading of this art form.

Poetry seems to be more popular recently. It’s becoming more mainstream and has moved from being seen as an academic, quirky, peripheral eccentricity, to an acceptable activity for growing numbers of ordinary citizens. "Poetry Slams" are held in larger cities and the revival of the coffee house has also revived poetry readings. How did this happen, and why? Here are a few observations:

Poetry is often short and can be quickly “consumed” in a way not possible with prose—an important value for readers. Poetry can also be written in short bursts of attention, another plus for those of us who aspire to write it. It's word cappuchino.

Another reason for the revival of poetry might be the ability of people in our culture to readily assimilate visual images. Ironically, this has come about because of film. Poetry is often filled with visual images which are offered up in accessible and interesting “word pictures.”

Poetry was visible after 9-11, when selections were offered to the masses as a way to help us deal with this national disaster. When faced with loss, pain and tragedies we can’t understand, we reach for words to comfort those who suffer and to memorialize those who have died. I’ve noticed how often in my own community family members write poems which they read at the memorial service of a loved one.

Poetry can serve as a challenge to society, too. In 2003, a poet and long-time pacifist, Sam Hamill, declined an invitation to the White House from Laura Bush because of the impending attack on Iraq. Then he asked about 50 fellow poets to submit poems of protest which he intended to send to the White House. Fifteen hundred poets responded within four days and Hamill created a website which has remained in existence at

Since then, other poets have also declined invitations from Laura Bush, most recently Sharon Olds. Today there are more than 20,000 poems in the Poets Against the War anthology. The rise of Poets Against the War is a fascinating study of the way poetry can be a prophetic and hopeful voice and help us all imagine a better world.

What is it about a collection of words that makes something a poem? While we often think of rhymed lines with a specific meter as the necessary structure of a poem, today many poems are not so rigidly organized. Many newer poems rely on subtle qualities of diction and organization. One long-standing value of good poetry is the use of fresh language which engages the senses. Often a poem calls on the reader to bring their own wisdom to the words. The reader's heart is invited to enter into the poem.

Something mystical happens when a new poetry reader first becomes engaged in the reading and writing of poetry. Ted Kooser, the current Poet Laureate tells about the time a person, perhaps at a young age, encounters this experience of being apprehended by poetic language. As I read his description, I remembered how, as a pre-teen, I’d clipped a poem from a church paper and pondered the words for weeks. The poem, likely not a very literary one, described the poet going out with a can of oil to find his neighbor’s squeaky gate, but in the process he encountered the neighbor and they “talked of gates, and oil, and life.” I have no idea who wrote that poem, but the imagery has remained with me. It educated me in the ways of poetry as I struggled to understand how the poet employed metaphor and symbol to speak to the ways of the heart.

Those of us who have grown up as practicing Christians have been primed for poetry consumption through the language of hymns and words of scripture—especially the Psalms and parables. Both are rich in just the kind of imagery that is still used in many current poems. The challenge for a contemporary poet is to find new and accessible ways to express truth. As readers of poetry, we might let the beauty of a collection of words stand in for us when we feel speechless, or inspire us to think in new ways. Poetry is also a form of music or visual art, to be enjoyed for its ability to feed the spirit.

Like those who responded to Sam Hamill’s request, many writers of poetry begin to write out of intense emotion—anger, fear, pain, loss, regret, love, or passion, to name a few. All of these emotions are within each of us—yet we’re sometimes at a loss to express them. In our current culture, many of us have relegated things of the heart to a small corner of our lives. We dwell mostly in our minds. Some have unwittingly closed their hearts to life’s greater truths. Poetry offers a path that can guide us back to a more spiritual life.

Poets have not yet managed to stop the war or right injustice or even capture the beauty of a sunset with their words, but they go on speaking—to the masses, or to the few who are listening.
Below is a poem I wrote recently after I began re-reading Donald Kraybill’s Upside Down Kingdom. The image of an “upside down kingdom” has become over-familiar to Mennonites. The phrase was coined by Kraybill to describe the political stance of Christ. As a poet, I wanted to try a fresh approach so I imagined what it would look like if the natural world was upside down.

Upside Down Kingdom

Have you seen the carrots and parsnips in my garden?
Their roots point up—reaching out to the sky,
their underground leaves are hidden from view.

Tree branches in my woods hide deep in the blue
I once thought a sky. Their roots spread out,
Fine threads weave a hairy brown canopy.

My black dog travels miles, running circles
on his back. His tongue reaches up to the raindrops
which stream away in the other direction.

There is a fire burning inside the mountain.
It is dark as a cave—I can’t see it but I know
it burns. It has such a cool breath.

The sky is an ocean; the wild ocean, a sky. A river
runs over my head. Stars twinkle under my feet.
All day I walk on the shadow I thought was the moon.

Lofty Thoughts


At 7:04 PM, Blogger Billie said...

This was a very thought provoking entry and I loved your poem - such a magic touch with words. Thanks for sharing your talent.


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