by Greg Cunningham
Why only April?
Most people are aware that February is Black History month and March is Women’s History month. The focus on these monthly topics is well-known and well-deserved. It may be worth noting that only August and December do not have distinctions of focus, while many other months have multiple topics for us to ponder.
For example, May is National Bike Month, July features National Ice Cream Month, and October gorges on National Pizza Month. With so many mensal dedications, we can’t be blamed for not knowing that April was National Poetry Month– an entire month dedicated to bards and the verses they create.
Though the dour T.S. Eliot penned the morose sentiment “April is the cruelest month” many poets view April as the start of spring weather and a season of revival. From the sweet showers of Geoffrey Chaucer to the tufted flowers of Robert Frost, April ushers in a sense of rebirth after the long winter, with opportunities to open windows, venture outside, and linger in the warmth of the sun’s rays.
For these reasons April may have been chosen to pay tribute to verse; and at least one city in America makes the most of it. In Montpelier, Vermont, storefront windows display posters bearing verses written by local bards. The city sponsors public readings and workshops to celebrate the genre. April in Montpelier knows the charm of spring.
Why does it matter? Why does poetry, the one academic subject that inspired audible groans when it was announced in my college courses, need to be celebrated? The best answer may come from the 1989 movie Dead Poet’s Society in which high school teacher Mr. Keating (played by Robin Williams) informs his students, “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion.”
Passion for people. Passion for interaction. Passion for life. Passion for language. These passions make us human and separate us from the other species. We look to poetry to help us sort it all out.
There are plenty of poems that inspire, intrigue, or amuse the reader. But none present a more alluring image than William Carlos Williams’s The Red Wheel Barrow:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
That’s it. That’s the whole poem. College literature courses always include it in the syllabus. It usually spurs student comments along the lines of “I could have written that,” to which I retort “Yes, but you didn’t.”
The Red Wheel Barrow is intricate in its simplicity. The contrasting colors of red and white glistening in the rain are easy images to conjure in the mind, and there is nothing in the poem that a reader would have trouble visualizing. Using simple language and elementary colors, Williams contributes to the realm in his own unique way.
Sixteen words is all it takes. Sixteen words to which every reader brings their own baggage, in which they see their own image: the plight of the worker, the difficulty of farm life, the symbols of the struggle to get through the day. No matter what you see, or how you interpret, the poem proffers an invitation to thought, to imagination, and to wonder.
Walt Whitman found beauty and inspiration every place he looked. Rivers, trees and even death stimulated Whitman to pick up his quill. But it was in his poem Oh Me! Oh Life! where he poses the ultimate question: “Oh me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?”
Luckily for us he provides an answer to his own question:
“That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
Poetry is the narrative of life. It provides verbal equivalents that enable us to express the sensations of soft spring rain and warming sun. We are all poets who express feelings and senses, some with more acuity than others, but all with the urgency of Robin Williams’s Mr. Keating. Once started, we could use more than the thirty days of April to work out our own contributing verses. We could make every month a month of poetry.
Greg Cunningham is a JFY Learning Specialist and an adjunct professor of English.
Other posts authored by Greg can be found here.
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