Since 1996, April has been observed as National Poetry Month; students, teachers and readers of all ages are encouraged to read poetry and to share it with friends and family. In that spirit, I wanted to write something about the occasion, while also bearing in mind a sad fact that a friend rightly pointed out to me: “Americans are afraid of poetry.”
I suspect that the unease many experience with poetry is a result of trying to read it in the same way one would read a newspaper, or a novel, or a textbook. One of the hazards of encountering poetry in books rather than in live readings or recordings is that it becomes easier to think that it should be read in silence rather than aloud.
As adults it seems we rarely read aloud or have anyone read to us. Perhaps you grew up with relatives or teachers who read aloud to you, or maybe you like to play audiobooks during your morning commute. If you go to Mass, you are accustomed to hearing the Scriptures proclaimed. Beyond that, however, you might not experience it often.
One of the customs I came to appreciate in my experiences of spending time with a monastic community was listening to the reading in the refectory during dinner; instead of conversing with one another, the members of the community eat in silence while one of the monks reads from a book.
This positive experience led me to suggest reading Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight aloud to a friend last winter. It takes much of an evening to read through the poem’s 2500 lines, but the tale of chivalry, magic and a heroic quest so captivates the imagination that even someone relatively new to poetry could enjoy this great adventure.
If such a lengthy work seems far too daunting and remote, consider picking up a collection of sonnets instead. The sonnet is a versatile and compact form that has been used well by innumerable poets. Among my favorite sonnets are “Love Is Not All” by Edna St. Vincent Millay (whose collected sonnets I consistently recommend) and “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Great poetry arising out of times of great anxiety can serve to console and inspire subsequent generations in times of distress. In these days when it seems that the entire world is amiss, where economic hardship, war, terrorism, political unrest and religious persecution all seem widespread and insurmountable, I have repeatedly returned to “September 1, 1939” by W. H. Auden for solace. At other times, and judging by observing social media, I have found myself and others quoting liberally from W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”
Lastly, I find myself often reading the work of a 12th-entury French troubadour named Hélinand, who left a luxurious aristocratic life to become a Cistercian monk at the abbey of Froidmont. Subsequent to his entering the monastery, he composed his moving and charming Verses on Death, in which he calls death to mind not to frighten, but rather to edify and to remind the reader that repentance and detachment from worldly goods and concerns are what allow us to attain happiness and holiness.
Colin O’Brienworks in the communications department of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and periodically updates his personal blog, Fallen Sparrow.