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Dream, love, smile, cry, rejoice, fear ... all through poetry

Published: Wednesday, April 10, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

“April is the cruelest month,” T. S. Eliot announces in the first line of his poem “The Wasteland.” But April is so much more than that. It’s National Poetry Month, a 30-day celebration, inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, to encourage all of us to think about poetry and poets in our culture.

Last year about this time, I challenged each of you to check out a poem – any poem – and spend a little time with it. I trust that you completed your assignment. This year, I propose that you continue your relationship with poetry. If you say you don’t like poetry, it’s a little like saying you don’t like food. Maybe you don’t like pickled pigs feet (me, neither), but you might like a fruit salad. So hang out with me for a little while, and let’s see if I can interest you in a poem that will suit your taste. 

Without screaming or sniveling, poets want their poems to emotionally touch their readers. That’s why poets choose their words so carefully. Here are some lines, taken from poems that you may want to read completely.

(Fear) “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forche: “The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves.”

(Disappointment) “The Spring and The Fall” by Edna St. Vincent Millay: “There’s much that’s fine to see and hear in the spring of a year, in the fall of a year. ’Tis not love’s going hurt my days, but that it went in little ways.”

(Joy) “I Have a Lamb” by Jack Prelutsky, our nation’s first Children’s Poet Laureate: “I have a lamb that loves to dance, it dances every day, and every time it has a chance, it practices baaaaa-let.”

(Gratitude) “The Reading Mother” by Strickland Gillilan:  “You may have tangible wealth untold; Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I you can never be – I had a Mother who read to me.”

Abraham Lincoln, so the story goes, had a favorite poem. He loved and could recite from memory all 56 lines of “Mortality,” which begins like this:

“O why should the spirit of mortal be proud!

Like a fast flitting meteor, a fast flying cloud,

A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave –

He passes from life to his rest in the grave.” 

Lincoln was drawn to the words long before he discovered their author’s name, William Knox. Some say the poet and poem, about death, the great leveler, would be nearly forgotten without their connection to Lincoln. Take a little time to read the whole poem. For a few minutes, you will feel connected to our popular 16th president.

The other night, I was at Duke’s in Crystal Lake with some friends when I brought up the subject of poetry – the perfect topic over a burger and a couple of beers. I asked if anyone had a favorite poem or could remember some lines from one. Mike piped up, “Cannons to the right of them. Cannons to the left of them. Cannons in front of them ... Into the valley of death rode the 600 (from Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”).

Mike’s wife turned to him and said, “How do you remember that? You can’t even remember our anniversary.”

But that’s how it is with powerful poetry! If it connects with you in the right setting and the right frame of mind, it remains with you forever, like a haunting song lyric. And, by the way, your children and grandchildren are reading renowned poems from their thick literature books. Also, they are creating their own poetry books and participating in poetry slams such as the one Jim May promotes at the Spoken Word Café in Woodstock every year. We, adults, need to keep up.

Last year, I’ll admit, I was scheduled to participate in the Slam; but I lost my nerve and sneaked out because I felt a little like Grandma Moses at the prom. When I heard all of the young students chanting and rapping, I was afraid they wouldn’t “get” my poems entitled “Claudine Longet” and “The Bird Feeder.” I was unable to take my own advice about there being a poem for everyone’s taste and that we all can sample from the same buffet.

In 2013, you are so lucky. If you want to nibble on some poetry during Poetry Month, you don’t even need a book. Just use a search engine and type in any of the titles I’ve given you. You can find the poem and sometimes hear it being read aloud by a spectacular voice such as that of James Earl Jones. Or, you can go to Poets.org and ask to have a Poem-A-Day e-mailed to you. Some offerings were written long ago; some are current. Some rhyme; some don’t. Some you may understand on a first reading; some you may have to read twice. But, once again, try a sample. If you don’t like it, taste something else.

Or, couples, spend a little time together, sitting in a hot tub while reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43 to each other: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Perhaps you will get turned on more quickly by those lines than by a second glass of wine.

By this time next year when I ask for a show of hands, I know you’ll be able to say that you have read and connected to at least one poem in 12 months. So I leave you with this invitation. Well, actually, it’s Shel Silversteen’s “Invitation”:                               

“If you are a dreamer, come in.

If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,

A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer . . .

If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire

For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.

Come in!

Come in!”

• Jan Bosman of Woodstock taught English and business for 32 years, the last 22 at Johnsburg High School. She also is a published essayist and poet.

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