National Poetry Month: 3 Poems You Should Read
Established in April 1996, National Poetry month came into being to highlight the expansive legacy of American poets and poetry as a force for education.
Inspired by the establishment of a Woman’s History month and Black History month, it all only seemed one step further towards progress to establish a month dedicated to the art of poetry.
With its capabilities to express thought, criticism, feeling, and experience, poetry is devoted to human being-ness. It grounds us in the moment and compels us to meditate on the words on the page. In poetry, no word is mistaken or unintentional. Every word deserves attention.
Our current political climate encourages us to act fiercely perhaps even rashly at times. We may get caught up in the moment without the opportunity to reflect. At times like now, poetry is necessary for it forges a reflective process in which many of us can understand more deeply the world or people around us.
In light of National Poetry month, it is time to re-read those poems that have shook our hearts, awakened our senses, and fully revealed to us the depths of human compassion. Starting off this list is Naomi Nye’s Burning the Old Year that captures with fire, the sense of the ephemeral and the boundaries of human limitation.
“Burning the Old Year” by Naomi Shihab Nye
Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.
So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.
Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.
Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies
Leaving us with the embers of regret, the second poem on this list goes in a very different direction. More jarring than the last, Ada Limon’s poem Torn meditates on a split snake body writhing on the floor…with such ease it makes us aspiring writers groan with admiration.
2. “Torn” by Ada Limón
Witness the wet dead snake,
its long hexagonal pattern weaved
around its body like a code for creation,
curled up cold on the newly tarred road.
Let us begin with the snake: the fact
of death, the poverty of place, of skin
and surface. See how the snake is cut
in two—its body divided from its brain.
Imagine now, how it moves still, both
sides, the tail dancing, the head dancing.
Believe it is the mother and the father.
Believe it is the mouth and the words.
Believe it is the sin and the sinner—
the tempting, the taking, the apple, the fall,
every one of us guilty, the story of us all.
But then return to the snake, poor dead
thing, forcefully denying the split of its being,
longing for life back as a whole, wanting
you to see it for what it is, something
that loves itself so much, it moves across
the boundaries of death, to touch itself
once more, to praise both divided sides
equally, as if it was almost easy.
What is striking about Limon’s poem is how forcefully the readers are enclosed in this space the snake inhabits; we are encouraged to see its being without the metaphors of calamity or sin. The speaker guides us in this meditation and so, the last moment grips us just as much as this next poem, Punish by Hieu Minh Nguyen.
3. “Punish” by Hieu Minh Nguyen
The last time I wet the bed
my mother pulled off my pants
pinned my face to the sopping mattress
& threatened me with a needle & thread.
I’m trying to understand that memory
is not a technology, a full charge
will get you nowhere, if you’re stuck
tracing the perimeters of your dull nostalgia
for an exit. My hands clutch a wheel
attached to nothing.
I’m often asked why I left my mother
her old age scaling the high-rise of her body.
Listen, trying to forget is not the same
as leaving—sometimes we must
forget to allow forgiveness
to comb the knots from our hair.
I’m sure it’s wrong, but I have this theory:
at the root of all of our sorrow there’s a woman
taking a long sip of water.
Yet again, Nguyen reminds us readers how powerful it is to end a poem with an image. Poems that explore memory tend to reproduce memories through their own story-telling and yet, Nguyen makes the point that forgetting is just as vital as remembering. The subtle reminder that forgetting is just as necessary to move on with life is moving as is his image that forgiveness is “to comb the knots from our hair.”
As readers of poetry or not, the things that poetry compels us to feel or think about is just as important as living. Some may argue that poetry is life, or is the extension of life, or a reflection of it. Either way, the relationship between human life and poetry exists. In a multitude of ways, poetry still thrives and will continue to thrive.
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