by William H. Benson
April 5, 2007
Bill Clinton, when President, designated April as the National Poetry Month. He called it “a welcome opportunity to celebrate . . . the vitality and diversity of voices reflected in the works of today’s American poets.” Yes, indeed, our nation’s poets, especially those of the past, are a cloud, not of witnesses, but of “disturbers of the peace,” which is what Plato called them, and “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” which is what the poet Shelley called them.
It seems that April and poetry belong together. It was usually in April, close to the end of the school year, that the English teachers would dust off their poetry books and try to teach us frightfully worrisome things like iambic pentameter and rhyme and alliteration, and a hundred other literary devices. Alas, the lessons often fell on deaf ears, for carefree school girls and energetic school boys normally do not pursue poetry with enthusiasm.
And yet the young of America are not without poetry. They are inundated in it. They swim in it. They live their lives surrounded by it. They cannot get enough of it. It is piped into their heads through earplugs and ipods and other electronic gadgetry. It is lyrics, accompanied by electronically-produced music.
Most of this poetry set to music is of little value, communicating nothing that can be called intelligent, laced with vulgarities, drowned out by the drums and guitars if not slurred by the vocalists, or nonsensical: “ABC. 123. Baby you and me.” And yet once people hear that music, they recognize the words and can recite them: they know poetry, but that of the popular kind.
George Will, the Newsweek columnist, a month ago pointed out that February 27th was the bicentennial of the birth of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the New England poet who wrote the familiar phrases: “Ships that pass in the night,” “footprints on the sands of time,” “the patter of little feet,” “Into each life some rain must fall,” “By the shore of Gitche Gumee,” and “Listen, my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” Alas, Longfellow now belongs to those poets considered unpopular.
And then there is Edgar Allan Poe who staked a claim on gloomy strangeness: “It was many and many a year ago, In a kingdom by the sea, That a maiden there lived whom you may know By the name of Annabel Lee;—And this maiden she lived with no other thought Than to love and be loved by me.” And who can ever extract from his or her mind Poe’s haunting words, “Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore.’”?
And then there is Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a dense multi-layered lengthy work that succeeds in captivating the American spirit: “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night, I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with every-returning spring.”
Robert Frost wrote of the simplest things. For example, late one evening he was riding in a carriage pulled by his horse, when he stopped to admire the “woods fill up with snow.” He wondered that his “horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse near.” But then Frost concluded his short poem with the gentlest of words: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.”
A good poem communicates much with a minimum of words. For example, A. H. Houseman in his I To My Perils described a pessimist: “The thoughts of others were light and fleeting, Of lovers’ meeting Or luck or fame. Mine were of trouble, And mine were steady, So I was ready When trouble came.”
Longfellow, Poe, Whitman, Frost, and Houseman—along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell—stand tall today as our nation’s poets, our literary treasure. They thought and saw that which others did not think or see. As Cezanne said of the artist Monet, “He is only an eye—but what an eye!”