Belated Respects to National Poetry Month

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with poetry. In high school I found it hard to understand the poems we had to read, unable to see the meaning the teacher insisted was there, waiting for us to discover. Reading a poem felt like trying to see through to the image hidden within those 3D posters. I’d read the poem, concentrate so hard on what it meant that I missed the beauty of the words and images and sound that were right in front of me.

I like to read poetry before I start writing for the day. When I teach, I often read a poem out loud, not to discuss or analyze it but so that the music of language gets woven into the air around us.

I took a graduate writing workshop with Melissa Pritchard at ASU back in 2001. We each had to memorize and recite a poem of our choosing in front of the class. I chose “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver.  My turn to read came exactly one week after 9/11. The mood was subdued, to say the least. I got up and recited from memory this beautiful poem. My voice wavered when I got to the line “I don’t know exactly what  prayer is” but I kept going, not wanting to cry in front of these people that I barely knew at this point. But when I came to the last line,”What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life” I no longer had a choice as to whether or not I would cry. I was crying. I looked up and others had tears in their eyes as well. It was a moment that connected us and during that moment in our history, connection was desperately needed.

Connection. That’s what poetry is for me. I no longer fear or dread poetry. I no longer read it as a way to merely decipher its meaning. Instead I let the sounds and images wash over and through me. One day I was feeling rather down and disconnected from my writing, brooding over my “Work”/purpose and what it means as my children grow up. Stewing in this disconnection I browsed the bookshelves at the local bookstore and stumbled across “Messenger” by Mary Oliver. I came to this line: “let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.” A wide deep space opened up within me. I could breathe easier. The angst I’d been feeling dissolved. I felt connected again. That is the gift of poetry.

Some of my favorite poets: Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Jane Kenyon, Pablo Neruda


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