National Poetry Month: One More Way to Celebrate

Here in the US, the Academy of American Poets recognizes April as National Poetry Month, a time to highlight the importance of poetry in the public sphere and to support the writing, reading, and teaching of poetry. The AAP suggests thirty ways to celebrate National Poetry Month, which includes reading poems and reading about poetry among other great ways to enjoy poems privately and publicly.

TLTNPMAs March ends, I’d like to offer a thirty-first suggestion: find a poem for the month and make it yours.

This seems counter to the idea of celebrating poetry in general at first, I know, since it would be more in the spirit of the month to set aside time in April to read whole anthologies, collections, journal issues, and so on. And I do think we should do that too—not only in April but year-round. Poetry is deceptive in its length, however. We read through poems, perhaps pausing a bit over words here and there to savor them. Most often, after these short visits, we breathe out then we’re on to the next one. Which is a shame, really. By the nature of the genre, well constructed, beautifully crafted poems won’t reveal everything on first readings. We need to come back to them to really know them, to be moved as far as we can by what the poet has created.

So I’d like to recommend that you pick a poem for April and get to know it. The poem can be an old favorite or a new find, speculative or traditional in genre, free verse or formal. An epic poem might work, but for the sort of activity I’m suggesting, a shorter lyric poem would be better: a sonnet, an ode, an elegy, or whatever strikes you.

Read the poem on the first, then put it away for a day or two. Come back to the poem and reread it. Consider how the second, third, fourth, and so on, readings differ from the first. Though you know the ending of the poem, and it may not surprise you on rereading, does it still satisfy you?

Each time you revisit the poem, read it in different modes. Read silently the first time, then aloud the next. Read the poem aloud by yourself once, then read it aloud to a friend or family member. Read it (if it’s appropriate to do so) to a child. How do your listeners react? Poetry is conversation: it speaks to each of us in different ways.

Read the poem at different times of day. We’re different in the morning from the people we are midday and the people we are just before we fall asleep at night. How does your perception of the poem change when you are (hopefully) refreshed from a good night’s sleep? In the middle of a busy day? Preparing to go out for an evening? Or curled up on the couch at the end of a long day?

Listen for the music in the poem. Don’t scan for meter—that can be counterproductive to your enjoyment of the poem. Remember, this is an act of acquainting yourself with something beautiful or compelling or shocking or consoling or maybe all of these things. It’s not an academic exercise. Just listen to the music, the way you’d listen to a familiar song. What do you hear? How does it affect how you perceive the content of the poem?

Don’t try to memorize the poem. Instead, notice which phrases and lines stay with you and which ones slip away from your thoughts between readings. You may have the poem memorized at the end of the month regardless. Again, this is not an academic exercise. Think of it as more of a walk through a park. You don’t need to write every tree, every swing set, every light pole, and so on to your mental map of the place to get a good feel for where you are. You just need to stay on the given path and enjoy.

And at the end of the month, ask yourself how you’ve changed as an audience for the poem. I hope you’ll end up with not only a deeper appreciation for the poem, but also a deeper appreciation for yourself as a reader.