This spring, Caroline Kennedy’s new book called Poems to Learn by
Heart was published. A segment on the evening news showed her standing
among excited middle school students who were being interviewed about
Kennedy’s volunteer work with them in appreciating and memorizing
poetry. One declared that it had changed her life. Her enthusiasm
brought me back to the year I ran a poetry class in Vermont’s high
security prison, which culminated with a reading in the facility’s
visiting room for inmates, special guests and the press.
moving to watch each man dressed in prison garb walk to the lectern to
read his work. White pages of poems fluttered in shaking hands as they
projected their voices across the room, just as we had practiced days
before the event. Their words hung in the air and were heard by others,
perhaps as their voices had never been listened to before. That day,
they stood tall through the power of poetry.
Once seen as
rarified territory occupied by writers, academics, lovers and
intellectual eggheads, poetry has crept into our homes and sat down in
the kitchen with us. Garrison Keillor reads a poem to us at breakfast or
during our commute, a president invites a poet to memorialize his
inauguration in the January cold as millions hang on every word, and
high octane poetry slams bring fresh young voices to the table.
have a United States poet laureate and individual ones in nearly every
state in the union. One of them, Billy Collins, was called "the most
popular poet in America" by the New York Times after he gained millions
of followers by reading on public radio’s Prairie Home Companion.
Perhaps turning a poet into a literary celebrity in real time did more
for the genre than centuries of book publishing ever could.
part of a circle of poetry appreciators that meets each month to share
aloud lines that we love. In decidedly Vermont style, we gather in a
yurt on the edge of a field that is blanketed with snow in winter and
swales of green in summer. Inside, the words of Mary Oliver, Robert
Frost, William Carlos Williams and Walt Whitman mingle with those of
unknowns whose work becomes an invitation into a new room. Poems about
ordinary loneliness, laundry, lust and the art of killing chickens share
space with the intricate constructions of Shakespeare and John Donne.
One of us recites from memory, several have sung their poems, and the
rest read in turn from books, magazines and creased internet printouts.
Hours pass by, but we hardly notice because we are bobbing together on
the sea of poetry.
April is National Poetry Month and might be
the perfect time for each of us to choose just one poem to commit to
memory. It can be shared with anyone, but once it’s in your pocket, it
will be yours and will keep you company for the rest of your life.