During National Poetry Month, some of us have celebrated by devoting some attention to this fantastic form of expression. A broadly defined genre with something for everyone, poetry seems to be like beauty ~ always in the eye of the beholder.
Poems are written in various styles: sonnets, haiku, limericks, ballads, odes, free verse, spoken word –even song lyrics. The importance — and wonder — of the genre is that there really is something for everyone.
OK. But What Is It?
Poetry has been used throughout history and in all cultures. The earliest documented work, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is estimated to be 4,000 years old.
Poetry is a form of literature that lets us appreciate language through symbolism, stanzas, rhythmic verse, figures of speech, and word choices. These choices allow the author’s ideas to be expressed uniquely and creatively. Sometimes those choices are so unusual that one can only guess at the poet’s intent. This leaves the reader free to imagine… to create a meaning of their own. The fluidity and flexibility of the genre are part of its many gifts, a fact that was recognized recently when, in 2016, the Swedish Academy awarded Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
What About Spoken Word?
The only real difference between spoken word poetry and other forms is the initial intent. When the poet sits down to write, a decision is made as to whether this particular work will be spoken aloud or written. Read, or heard.
Poets in earlier centuries wrote primarily for recitation as much of the populace could not read, including those in the upper or royal classes. Many poems that we read for ourselves today were originally written to be spoken aloud.
Spoken word poetry was later embraced by the American Beat Poet movement of the 1940s and 1950s. At its height, we heard the works of Ginsberg, Huncke, Corso, Vega, di Prima, Kaufman, and Burroughs, to name a few. For a while, this form of poetry faded from popularity, until seeing a resurgence in the 1990s. Spoken word is still alive and well – and growing. Current artists include Safia Elhillo, Kat Francois, Andrea Spisto, Alok Vaid-Menon, and Andrea Gibson.
You can see spoken word poets perform their works at different venues and compete at poetry slams. You may be interested in scanning YouTube to see the last World Poetry Slam held in 2019. To get you started, here is a link to Aiya Meilani, one of the youth finalists at the World Poetry Slam. Take a listen and be amazed.
So Who Loves Poetry?
Currently, it doesn’t seem to me that poetry is widely read. So how are people to be exposed to poetry, how are they going to learn to love it? Inaugural poems are an amazing moment of exposure. During most presidential inaugurations in recent past decades, the citizenry is glued to their televisions, watching the pomp and celebration.
In 1993, Maya Angelou, the first black inaugural poet, recited “On the Pulse of the Morning” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. Richard Blanco, the first Latino and the only openly gay inaugural poet to date, spoke “One Today” at the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2013. Elizabeth Alexander spoke “Praise Song for the Day” in 2009 at Obama’s first inauguration. “The Hill We Climb” is a spoken word poem written by American poet Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet, and recited by her at the inauguration of Joe Biden in Washington, D.C. on January 20, 2021.
This glorious tradition began in 1961 when Robert Frost became the first poet to speak at the inauguration of a president. He recited from memory “The Gift Outright,” when the glare of the sun prevented him from reading “Dedication,” a poem he had written especially for the occasion.
These ceremonial moments give us a peek at poetry, just as poetry slams — whether in person or on YouTube — do. And all of the above are available to listen to as well as to read. So whether you listen or read, whether you wiki or pick up an old and favorite volume, there are plenty of opportunities to spend time with poetry.
So Many Poems
How do you pick a favorite poem or poet? Alas, it is a wealth of riches, and hard to go wrong. But if you’re looking for recommendations, I’ve got some for you.
I have always been fond of Emily Dickinson and particularly “I’m nobody, who are you? Are you nobody, too? Then there’s a pair of us, don’t tell.” Curiously a frog comes into it and that has long been a bit of a puzzle for me. I’m not sure what frogs have to do with being nobody, but I have always loved the poem nevertheless. She is a poet worth revisiting.
As a young, idealistic love-child person I had a great affinity for Walt Whitman and his Leaves of Grass: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” (Song of Myself). I still have the pressed flowers in my well-worn copy of this collection.
And Blake, with his darkness and his Songs of Innocence and Experience: “Ah, Sun-flower! weary of time, Who countest the steps of the Sun, Seeking after that sweet golden clime Where the traveller’s journey is done.” and my Grandmother’s crazy-somehow-cousin-Allen Ginsberg with his Beat cynicism. So many poets are part of my growing up — both in literature and in life.
Poetry’s Legacy of Oppression
With Russian and Ukrainian grandparents in the family, Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s Babi Yar has always spoken to me. With Ukraine under attack and specifically the memorial of Babi Yar, the grave of untold hundreds of murdered Jews, it should be remembered that two poems were written about the site. By November 1941, the number of Jews shot dead at Babi Yar exceeded 75,000. Mykola Bazhan wrote Babi Yar in 1943 and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1970. The Soviet government required him to decline the prize. A fragment of Yevtushenko’s version is here:
No monuments stand over Babi Yar,
A sudden drop sheer as a gross graveslab.
I am here terrified.
Today I am
As old as all the Jewish people are.
Now it seems that I am
There I am wandering Ancient Egypt’s lands,
And there I perish, pierced and crucified,
And to this day bear nail scars on my hands.
And Dreyfus too is me,
But more modern? Wallace Stevens (I know, not so modern you say – 1940s and forward). Valley Candle:
My candle burned alone in an immense valley.
Beams of the huge night converged upon it,
Until the wind blew.
Then the beams of the huge night
Converged upon its image,
Until the wind blew.
How about Nikki Giovanni and Leroi Jones, now known as Amiri Bakara? He wrote Legacy in 2016:
In the south, sleeping against
the drugstore, growling under
the trucks and stoves, stumbling
through and over the cluttered eyes
of early mysterious night. Frowning
drunk waving moving a hand or lash.
Dancing kneeling reaching out, letting
a hand rest in shadows. Squatting
to drink or pee. Stretching to climb
pulling themselves onto horses near
where there was sea (the old songs
lead you to believe). Riding out
from this town, to another, where
it is also black. Down a road
where people are asleep. Towards
the moon or the shadows of houses.
Towards the songs’ pretended sea.
To Advance an Honest Mind
And then there is John Donne, a volume published in 1633 and still read today by students of literature. Again, just a fragment of the poem Song:
Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil’s foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
Serves to advance an honest mind.
And T.S. Eliot dense and beautiful, Gerard Manley Hopkins and e.e. cummings, often no punctuation needed, one of my favorites You Shall Above All Things Be Glad and Young:
you shall above all things be glad and young
For if you’re young whatever life you wear
it will become you; if you are glad
whatever’s living will yourself become.
Girlboys may nothing more than boygirls need:
i can entirely her only love
whose any mystery makes every man’s
flesh put space on; and his mind take off time
that you should ever think, may god forbid
and (in his mercy) your true lover spare:
for that way knowledge lies, the foetal grave
called progress, and negation’s dead undoom.
I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance
And when listing favorites, there’s Robert Frost and the Road Not Taken. Or the best advice that has ever been given: “Do not go gentle into that good night.” (Thank you, Dylan Thomas.)
Writing this post has been a wonderful chance to revisit many of my old favorites. So, reader, thank you. Keep reading poetry, listening to poetry, and hearing it in song lyrics. And, if you’ve got a moment, please share your favorite poet — or poem — in the comments. We look forward to your recommendations.
About the Author
Trienah Meyers is a member of Amelia Indie Authors and a singer, blogger, cook, friend, and editor. She is a writers’ online resource for #legal and #crime crime procedures. Committed to lifelong learning and travel she writes short non-fiction on several topics.