Why is it that poetry can strike fear into the heart of even the most avid reader? I speak from experience. That fear nearly delayed my college graduation when my adviser discovered that I was still shy of a required 300-level poetry class. I was actually well aware that I was missing the class but, in all of my 21-year-old wisdom, hoped the problem would go away if I ignored it. I remember thinking poetry was inaccessible – who my age even READ poetry? – but also, secretly, worrying that I was not smart enough to understand it. I vowed to hate the class. Only… I didn’t.
I’m not sure why I found the fact that I liked poetry so surprising. I love words, and am constantly amazed by an author’s ability to construct novel combinations that fit together to make stories, create magical worlds, or evoke emotions. I love reading books because they entertain, inspire, educate, challenge. Poetry does all of these things too, but in a bite-sized package. If, like me, you have avoided poetry because you are afraid you won’t understand it, you think it is not relatable, or you simply have no idea where to start, I hope that, in the spirit of National Poetry Month, you’ll give it another chance.
With Governor Pritzker’s shelter-in-place order for Illinois residents extending through April 30th, we are living through an unprecedented moment in history. There are many people using this time to do all of the things that they were too busy for in the past: cleaning out the closets, making cinnamon rolls from scratch, learning an instrument. My shelter-in-place challenge to you is to read a poem every day this month. (It sure beats cleaning closets!) I’ve included a short list of poetry resources to get you started: ebooks/eaudiobooks that you can check out with a Cook library card, as well as websites that you can access online. I’ve even included a poem to read today, one by Mary Oliver that I have found myself coming back to many times in the last few weeks. It always leaves me feeling hopeful that better times are just around the corner. By the end of this month, I hope that you’ll agree that poetry isn’t so scary after all.
Carl Sandburg: Many of Sandburg’s poems focus on Chicago, a city he described in one poem as “City of the Big Shoulders.” Winner of two Pulitzer prizes for poetry, his work includes free-verse musings on American urban and rural life and observations of society and people.
Gwendolyn Brooks: She was the first African-American recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and also held the positions of poetry consultant to the Library of Congress and Poet Laureate of the state of Illinois. Her poems vary in form and technique, but often display a strong political consciousness of gender, social, and civil rights issues and racial identity.
r.h. Sin: Poet r.h. Sin, whose real name is Ruben Holmes, first amassed a huge following on the social media platform Instagram, currently 1.9M followers and counting. A feature in the Culture section of The New Yorker magazine firmly cemented his pro-feminist work within the literary community.
Lang Leav: After sharing her poetry on Tumblr in 2012, she self-published her first book of poetry the next year and then landed a contract with publishing house Andrews McMeel. Her poetry of love, loss, and female empowerment resonates with her nearly 2 million followers across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Rupi Kaur: Kaur rose to fame by first sharing her visual poetry on Tumblr and Instagram. Combined, her two poetry books have sold over 6.5 million copies. Common themes include relationships, trauma, healing, and the immigrant experience.
Aspiring poets looking to follow in the steps of these writers can participate in the #AtlanticPoetryChallenge on Instagram through the end of the month.
It’s often said that poems are best appreciated when read aloud. Check out one of these eAudiobook poetry collections, pop in a pair of earbuds, and prepare to be solaced, emboldened, or inspired.
Poetry Foundation: Browse several dozen wide-ranging collections from Dog Poems and Poems of Hope and Resilience, to Poems of Jewish Faith and Culture. Also includes access to the entire archive of Poetry magazine.
Poets.org: Search this curated collection of over 10,000 poems by keyword, theme, occasion, form, or poet.
Starlings in Winter
by Mary Oliver
Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as if I had wings.
“Starlings in Winter” © Mary Oliver. From Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays