As we begin National Poetry Month’s twenty-sixth year, my thoughts turn to the tiny bit of extra attention poetry and poets receive during this time. In April, Poets Laureate revel in their brief moments in the sun, coming up with creative ways to force poetry into the attention of unsuspecting citizens. When I was Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, California, I asked local businesses to display poems on cardstock in their windows, and roped some volunteers into handing out poems printed on slips of paper to people on the street.
When I look back on those activities now, they seem less like fun and more like desperation. I’ll never forget the looks on people’s faces when I walked up to them and asked if they’d like a poem. Most were polite, a few enthusiastic, even touched, and one man backed away from me as if I’d tried to hand him a dead rat.
Even though poets labor for the most part in total obscurity, every once in a while, a poet takes center stage. Six times in American history, the world paid attention (or maybe just waited until it was over) to a poet reading during the presidential inauguration. The first poet to read at such an occasion, Robert Frost, famously choked on “The Gift Outright.” Thirty-two years passed until Maya Angelou read “On the Pulse of Morning” for the celebration of Bill Clinton’s first election. There followed Miller Williams’ “Of History and Hope” in 1997, Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day” in 2009, Richard Blanco’s “One Today” in 2013, and Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” in 2021. So far, the list begins with the eldest poet to read at an inauguration and ends with the youngest.
I’m not sure what it says about our divided political climate, but so far, only four presidents: Kennedy, Clinton, Obama, and Biden, all Democrats, have had inauguration poets.
In spite of National Poetry Month, inauguration poems, and we poets’ efforts to spread the word, there’s just no getting around the marginality of poetry. We write our poems, share them with other poets and our very patient families, and publish a few if we’re lucky.
So why do we do this?
To quote Amanda Gorman, from an interview with PBS, “The power of poetry is everything for me. Poetry is an art form, but it’s also a weapon and an instrument. It’s the ability to make ideas that have been known, felt and said.” Amanda’s charisma, youth and talent focused the fickle beam of the public’s attention on to poetry for a short but important moment. I love that she equates poetry with weapons, because there is something dangerous about poems. When we write poems, we put our deepest thoughts on the page, risking exposure. Reading poetry changes us.
I have many fond memories of my time as Poet Laureate, but one stands out. A reporter interviewed me for a local newspaper. When the interview was over, she told me that the reason she lived in California was because of Robert Frost’s classic poem, “The Road Not Taken.” “I was in a freezing cold mid-western winter,” she said, “and I happened to come across the poem. That day I decided to move somewhere better suited for me.” She reached into her wallet and pulled out the poem, torn from a newspaper, folded and furry with age. Soon after, she moved to California, where she’s lived ever since.
So here we are, with thirty days to bask in the glory of National Poetry Month. What will you do to help promote poetry in your community?