April: a festival of poetry-because the words will save us

by Christie Shumate McElwee

When I taught high school English, I loved April. Yes, April brings tulips and daffodils and dazzling purple trees, but it also gives us National Poetry Month. During April my lessons often revolved around reading and writing poetry. I especially loved poetry slam days when the students would read their original work, some of which were both hilarious and profound. Along with Shakespeare’s sonnets and Robert Frost, I also introduced them to Joy Harjo, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Adrienne Rich. Poetry does not need to be complicated or dissected to death. I just wanted students to dive into the words and really feel the beat of the language. Some rolled their eyes, but others fell face first into the festival of poetry.

During my retired life, I have sought out more poetry. I follow The Academy of American Poets on Facebook and through email. This organization posts a poem a day and other articles about various poets. Yesterday’s poem, Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night,” is a timely reminder of the preciousness of life. Brain Pickings, another site I follow, the curator Maria Popova writes about the impact of artists, including poets. It is where I’ve discovered Mary Oliver, Ross Gay, and Nikita Gill. Oliver’s gentle and introspective soul delivers simple comfort, especially during tough times. Gay expounds his “unabashed gratitude” through a garden of sweet and sad verses. Gill crushes the staid stereotypes in fairy tales and creates fierce new interpretations, inspiring children and adults to look beyond the ordinary and the expected.

There are so many poems I love, from e.e. cummings’ [i carry your heart with me (i carry it in)] to Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is a thing with feathers.” I collect poems like others collect salt and pepper shakers or glass figurines. Over the next month I would like to share some with you and write about how the words can trip and strut and shimmy into your hearts. A few may challenge your convictions; others may steady your anxious mind.

The first poem is “An Old Story” by Mary Oliver. Like many of you, I haven’t been sleeping well. I’m worried about EVERYTHING. Even my dreams nag me with distress. One of the things I have decided to do every morning, along with writing a page or two in my journal, is to read a few poems. I found this one today. It is as though she was there with me as I woke from my troubled sleep.

“An Old Story” by Mary Oliver

Sleep comes its little while. Then I wake

in the valley of midnight or three a.m.

to the first fragrances of spring

which is coming, all by itself, no matter what.

My heart says, what you thought you have you do not have.

My body say, will this pounding ever stop?

My heart says: there, there, be a good student.

My body says: let me up and out, I want to fondle

those soft white flowers, open in the night.

I am going to listen to my heart and body today by taking a long, socially distant walk in nature.

What are you going to do? Whatever it is, I hope you remember to live and love and breathe.

“An Old Story” by Mary Oliver was first published in A Thousand Mornings by Penguin Press, 2012. This version is from Devotions by Mary Oliver, Penguin Press, 2017.