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April is National Poetry Month in the United States, a time to raise awareness of poetry and to celebrate the ways it enriches our lives.
The designation of April as National Poetry Month began in 1995 by the Academy of American Poets, and it has been celebrated since that time by schools, poetry clubs and associations, the media and by poetry lovers all around our country.
Poetry is everywhere. From nursery rhymes, simple jingles, song lyrics, biblical Psalms, poems of popular culture and works of the world’s greatest poets, poetry touches the lives of all of us in one way or another.
Many people have adored poetry through the ages as a way of expressing their own ideas and enjoying the ideas of others through verse.
So what is poetry? Definitions are endless as the sky, and each is probably incomplete.
One of the most famous definitions of poetry comes from William Wordsworth, who said poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”
How many of us have scribbled a few lines of verse when we were overcome by emotions of love or when we have seen a sight in nature that profoundly touched our feelings?
Robert Frost was an advocate for poetry in our schools. Who among us can say that we were not exposed to poetry in school?
In the early years of school all the way to high school and higher education, we read, sometimes memorize and usually analyze poetry for its elements and ideas. Most of us can recall some of the poems that made an impression on us as students.
Some students learn to dread poetry in English class; others enjoy it so much that they became poets themselves; all are affected by it in some way.
Misconceptions about poetry abound.
First, poetry does not have to rhyme. Walt Whitman popularized free verse, poetry without regular meter or rhyme. Much of modern poetry is written in free verse.
Also, poetry does not have to be highbrow or difficult to understand; it can be ideas expressed in the simplest, briefest way, just enough words to get a thought expressed. Sometimes a few words with silence that implies ideas are enough.
In addition, poetry does not have to be expressed in words. It might be “poetry in motion” or poetry expressed through visual arts. What if a painting could talk?
No matter what its form, poetry enriches the lives of humanity.
Consider these ideas about poetry. The shortest poem consists of two words: “Come home.” The longest poem ever recorded is the Indian epic, the “Mahabharata,” which has 1.8 million words. The oldest poem recorded is the ancient epic from Mesopotamia, “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” from which most students these days read excerpts in high school.
The most popular poetic form is the haiku, a Japanese poem that has three lines, 17 syllables, no rhyme and expresses one thought or image, usually about an element of nature or some allusion to one of the seasons.
According to some sources, the most well known poem in the English language is William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?”
The Old Testament Psalms are among the most popular and beloved poems or songs that have ever been written. The 150 poems express joy, praise, grief, fear and many other emotions of the human condition. Psalm 23 is the most popular and is often committed to memory.
If you like lyrics of popular songs, you like poetry; if you like rap, you like poetry; if you like to teach nursery rhymes and simple songs to children, you like poetry; if you like messages on greeting cards, you like poetry; if you like reading the Psalter in church, you like poetry; if you like ideas expressed in gushy love poems, you like poetry; if you like ideas expressed in modern, unconventional verse, you like poetry; if you like Byron and Shelley and Keats, you like poetry.
If you want to try your hand at poetry, why not get a blank card and write a few lines to a special person for a special occasion? Rhyme is not necessary; just a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” will do. Draw a little image to further express your feelings. Your gift of poetry will go farther that an expensive, store-bought gift.
If you want to get school-age children hooked on poetry, teach them Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat” or Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” or Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” or Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.” They just might beg for more poems.
If you want to be jolted by a couple of heavy ideas, read Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning” or Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.”
If you want to be inspired, read Psalm 8 from the Old Testament or “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Learn to write haiku; you will be hooked. Experiment with writing love poems; you will be proud. Try to write a Shakespearean sonnet; you will be challenged.
Host a poetry party and have each guest read a favorite poem; you will be charmed. Go after some beauty by reading Byron’s “Apostrophe to the Ocean” or Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” or John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”; you will be changed forever.
Better still, go out into the country, watch a sunset and write down what you see and how it makes you feel. You will be a poet.
No matter what, celebrate National Poetry Month this year and in years to come.
Sanda Baucom Hight is retired from Wilson County Schools after serving as an English teacher and is currently a substitute teacher in Wilson County. Her column focuses on the charms of home, school and country life. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.