Friday, March 27, 2015

What’s the Verse Thing That Can Happen?

April is National Poetry Month – but you say you’re going to sit this one out?

Poetry scares a lot of people, especially people who didn’t do well in school when it came to interpreting dense verses in English class. How scary is poetry?

So scary that the artistic director of a regional modern dance company, struggling to build his audience, once quipped, “You would think we were trying to get people to sit through an evening of poetry!”

The point is this: Poetry is a conversation between the poet and the reader, a subjective experience. Some conversations go well, some not so much and perhaps some never should have happened at all. Robert Frost, he who stopped by woods on a snowy evening, looked at poetry another way. People forget, he said, and “poetry makes you remember what you didn't know you knew."

In defense of poetry, here some favorite lines from my favorite poets, poets with whom you may want to start your own conversations.  Keeping fair use laws in mind, only a tantalizing line or two are quoted here. The complete poems are in books or on line. For more about the 19th annual National Poetry Month, look to the Academy of American Poets. (

Poetry about Lanyards, Dogs, Sex and Perseverance

A few months ago, by choice I sat through an evening of poetry read by Billy Collins, who served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003. Here are some of my favorite lines from Collins, who routinely surprises readers:

“She gave me life and milk from her breasts and I gave her a lanyard.”

“When he told me he expected me to pay for dinner, I was like give me a break.”

“I am the dog you put to sleep.”

About that dog -- speaking for those that don’t have a voice is common in poetry. In “Lady Freedom Among Us,” Rita Dove imagines a back story for a statue that sits on top of the Congress building in Washington, D.C. Dove, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 and served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993 to 1995, depicts the statue as a former bag lady. The poet challenges readers to consider Lady Freedom as “one of the many” and also as “each of us.”

Some poems deliver barely a glancing blow on the psyche, but some make a big impression. Lines that have stayed with me for decades range from e.e. cummings’ “I like my body when it is with  your body” to Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” to John Donne’s “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love” to Erica Jong’s “You gave me the child that seamed my belly & stitched up my life” to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “funny fantasies are never so real as oldstyle romances.”

As a college student in 1967, I spent a dollar on a new copy of Ferlinghetti’s “A Coney Island of the Mind,” which has sold over a million copies and been translated into nine languages since it was published in 1958. The co-founder of San Francisco’s storied City Lights Booksellers & Publishers (, Ferlinghetti, who turns 96 on March 24, is a poet, painter and activist closely associated with the Beat Writers.

One of them, Gregory Corso, plaintively asks in his poem “Marriage:” “Should I get married? Should I be good?” Rather than entertain a question, Dag Hammarskjöld tells the reader exactly what to do in his moving poem that insists: “It is now, Now, that you must not give in.” Hammarskjöld -- the late Swedish diplomat, economist, author, second Secretary-General of the United Nations and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize -- later advises, “The way chose you -- And you must be thankful.” I routinely recommend the poem to friends going through tough times.

Poetry about Aging, Ginkgo Trees, Cancer and Grandkids

Aging is a topic tackled by many a poet, and reading these works reminds me that I am not alone on this odd journey of growing older. Rainer Maria Rilke begins one such poem this way: “You see, I want a lot.” Later, Rilke notes, “You have not grown old, and it is not too late to dive into your increasing depths where life calmly gives out its own secret.” On the same topic, Derek Walcott writes, “Sit. Feast on your own life.”

In one poem, Pat Schneider (, the poet and author who founded Amherst Writers & Artists, pays homage to her brother at age 60: “Because the world we knew together is coming to an end, and he’s the one who remembers that day I roller-skated too fast down the hill, how I fell – how he picked me up and called me by my childhood name.”

Marilyn Zuckerman’s poem “After Sixty” begins: “The sixth decade is coming to an end. Doors have opened and shut.” A few lines later, Zuckerman ( declares that after 60 is a “time to tell the story, time to invent the new one.” She is the recipient of an Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award.

Ginkgo trees, a personal favorite, are contemplated in the poetry of Howard Nemerov, Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress, and a winner of the National Book Award for Poetry and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Even common diseases are discussed in poetry. Richard Fox occasionally writes poetry about cancer. In his “Day One,” Fox speaks about leaving from his first appointment about chemotherapy and radiation. He writes of meeting “a whistling man” at the elevator, a man with “sunken eyes, bald, no eyebrows” who is wearing a “CANCER SUCKS” button. The man grins and asks, “So what are you in for, kid?” (For more about Fox, see

In her poetry, Olivia Stiffler ( writes beautifully about grandchildren. David Tucker, longtime assistant managing editor at the New Jersey Star-Ledger, pens poems in his book “Late for Work” about life in the newsroom.

See? Poetry is about anything and everything, and about all of us and everything we love and fear and want to hold close. Go on – go to Google and type in any subject and the word “poem” and see for yourself.

And then please reconsider celebrating National Poetry Month!

1 comment:

  1. I love Billy Collins and immediately knew the first poem you posted the quote from--also one of my favorites. I have found I am most drawn to books written by a single poet who speaks to me rather than anthologies compiled by an editor. I love Mary Oliver, Louise Gluck, Adrienne Rich and Robert Hass. Some of the poets you mention are intriguing and I will check them out.