National Poetry Month launched twenty years ago this April on the steps of a post office in New York City. There, the story goes, Academy of American Poets staff members handed out copies of T.S. Eliot's poem, "The Wasteland," which begins, "April is the cruellest month..." to individuals waiting in line to mail their tax returns. This year, National Poetry Month events will take place in bookstores, libraries, and schools across all of North America.
What began as a modest effort (inspired by federally designated occasions like Women's History Month in March) to highlight the cultural contributions of poets, promote the sales and distribution of poetry books, and encourage the reading and teaching of poems, has become a phenomenon positively impacting the state of poetry in the United States.
More people than ever are reading poems. This year alone, poems on Poets.org will be read tens of millions of times. People visit the site looking for poems to help mark special events in their lives. They also turn to poets to help make sense of current events.
During the protests in Ferguson, Missouri during August 2014, there was a sudden and dramatic increase in the number of people reading Langston Hughes's poem, "Let America Be America Again" on Poets.org. In a two-week period tens of thousands of individuals had read the poem, which includes the refrain: "(There's never been equality for me, / Nor freedom in this 'homeland of the free.')"
On the morning of January 5 of this year, we published the poem, "Letter Beginning With Two Lines by Czesław Miłosz" by Matthew Olzmann, which vividly addresses school shootings. He writes: "The classroom of grief / had far more seats / than the classroom for math." Later that day, coincidentally, President Obama gave a major speech about curbing gun violence, and quickly Olzmann's poem became one of our most-shared poems on social media.
As one reader commented, Olzmann's poem "moved off (digital) media and into the urgent non-virtual lives and breath of everybody."
A poem can do that. It can transcend the solitary exchange between the individual reader and the poet's words on a page/screen and become an event, especially when the work aptly expresses our collective outrage, passions, fears, or grief.
Who can forget in the wake of September 11, 2001, the many times W. H. Auden's poem, "September 1, 1939" arrived in one's email box, with its stark and painful truth that, "The unmentionable odour of death / Offends the September night."
Amid all of our clicks, swipes, scrolls, and the ever-increasing speed with which we organize and share information, we still hunger for thoughtful communication and authentic emotional connections. Traveling across the virtual transom, poems can help facilitate moments where this is possible.
As Mark Doty wrote in his essay "Tide of Voices: Why Poetry Matters Now:"
The project of poetry, in a way, is to raise language to such a level that it can convey the precise nature of subjective experience... Such enchanted language could magically dissolve the barrier of skin and bone and separateness between us...
Some poems become collective expression. Others return us to the self, providing, perhaps, a greater appreciation for each other. As Elizabeth Alexander writes in her poem, "Ars Poetica #100: I Believe," "Poetry (here I hear myself loudest) / is the human voice, / and are we not of interest to each other?"
To read poems is to suspend the bustle and buzzing to contemplate poets' sculpted syntax, and the sounds they orchestrate, images they paint, and ideas they generate. Whether poems turn us outward or inward, they stop us and demand deliberate consideration. You might think of poems as the ultimate slow art. Our lives are enriched by this slowness, and over the past twenty years, a growing number of individuals have recognized the value and meaning poetry brings to our lives.
After many decades of hiatus, poems are again being regularly published on several news sites and papers. And, in the past twenty years we've seen many new poetry organizations, slams, festivals, journals, and presses launch, and the number of cities that sponsor poet laureate positions more than double. Poem in Your Pocket Day, an event that began in New York City in 2002, has been celebrated in more states each year, and on April 21 this year, for the first time, will be held in Canada.
A generation has grown up with National Poetry Month and we're beginning to see the impact. Poetry is booming and blooming, and not just in April, but year-round.