By **Ada Limón**
I just moved to Kentucky. Or rather, I am currently living here, though I also live in California, and also New York. It’s been a long time since I have felt so significantly uprooted and yet oddly comfortable. I am living out of two small suitcases. I have my clothes stacked neatly in a hallway cabinet, as we have no dresser. I have a few books: new and old poetry, a friend’s new novel, and a memoir. We have a coffee maker as of yesterday, and a few things in the fridge. Spring is here, or at least it is here today. And it is National Poetry Month.
April has been declared (that sounds like poets stormed the capitol) National Poetry Month since 1966. Founded by the Academy of American Poets and growing more substantial every year, this month is a time we get to celebrate the weird and wonderful world of poems and those who write them. There are readings and school functions, symposiums, and articles. And, even at a time where our world seems to be falling apart—wars, natural disasters, government shutdowns—there are still people reading and writing poems, passing them like notes under the door, saying, “Here, this will help.”
And it does. Poetry does help. A study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center and commissioned by the Poetry Foundation, found that the “vast majority (90 percent) of American readers highly value poetry and believe it enriches the lives of those who read it.” And yet, for the most part, most of the conversations about poetry (with poets and non-poets) tend to focus around the fact that no one cares about it. But, maybe that’s not true.
I know a guy who works at the Off-Track Betting window in Sonoma County who reads more poetry than the average creative writing student getting his or her MFA in poetry. In my experience, people do read poems, and even people you’d least expect to, have a favorite poem, or a favorite poet.
At the recent Living by Poetry Symposium at Texas Christian University, Billy Collins said the two questions he was asked most as the U.S. Poet Laureate (2001-2003) were, “How do you explain the recent resurgence of American Poetry?” and “How do you explain why no one reads poetry?” We all laughed at the obvious dichotomy of the two questions. Poetry is, at once, fueling its own come back, and dying in the back alley of all things that don’t matter? So which one is it? Dying or living? Or, is it like us humans, doing both at the same time. I don’t know.
[E]ven at a time where our world seems to be falling apart—wars, natural disasters, government shutdowns—there are still people reading and writing poems, passing them like notes under the door, saying, “Here, this will help.”
The recent decision of Penn State to cut its top-ranked Creative Writing MFA program only points to the fact that all the arts are in a precarious position in terms of funding, even when they are highly-lauded. But on that same note, more and more students are applying to MFA programs every year which, while sparking controversies as to the real value of the MFA, nonetheless seems encouraging as to the growth and life of poetry.
Whether or not we are seeing the tide of poetry’s popularity ebb or flow seems to be somewhat up in the air. But what I do know, and what I am most intimately familiar with, is that poetry helps, that on days when I feel overwhelmingly bullied by the ongoing barrage of vitriol and pain in the world, there is a very real and significant joy that occurs when I return to, or discover, a really good poem. But explaining why it matters, or how it helps, is difficult. It’s like trying to explain to someone why walking into a stand of trees helps, or why going to the water helps, or seeing that one kind burst of blue sky among the terrifying scrapers helps.
Perhaps why it matters, how it lifts us, and why some of us return to it again and again is, unlike any other form of writing, poetry has breath built right into it, thanks to the line break, and the stanza. “And here we breathe a little,” the poem says, “and here we breathe a lot.” Right now, as a society, I think we need that breath. That necessary pause that allows for our own wrecked little selves to enter the poem, or even just return to the room we are presently in, that particular moment is where the real brilliance of great poetry happens.
Stephen Colbert, in a recent Colbert Report, said, “Folks, I’ve said it before, I love breathing. I could do it all day long.” And he’s right, or rather the joke is right. Because we do it naturally to survive, we forget the importance of a deeper breath, a quieter second. It’s easy to forget the importance of just being here in the world, noticing something, being grateful of something, acknowledging the pain of something. National Poetry Month allows us both the breath and buoy. I think we need it.
Maybe that’s why I’m not feeling too un-tethered despite not having a real home at the moment. I’m in this sparse kitchen in Kentucky, the rains look like they’re coming in over the field to the west, the birds are being lunatics, and this month it’s okay to look out the window for a long while. This month, I could even pretend to be the window, letting in all the April air, this month that’s okay. The poets declared it so.
Copyright 2011 Ada Limón
Ada Limón grew up in Glen Ellen and Sonoma, California. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harvard Review, and Poetry Daily. She is the author of three books of poetry, Lucky Wreck, This Big Fake World, and Sharks in the Rivers.