April 8, 2013

Off Campus: Poetry for the ear: Thoughts on National Poetry Month

Anyone can enjoy the music of formal verse -- try reading aloud or sharing a poem at the dinner table.

By Annie Finch

PORTLAND - Being a poet is a little like being a psychiatrist or a doctor: People want to share their stories with you. 

As a poet and a teacher of poetry, I often hear about favorite poems loved from childhood, recited from memory by grandparents or teachers, shared by lovers or spouses.

I've been privy to sadder poetry stories, too. "I don't read much new poetry," people tell me. "I just don't enjoy the new stuff as much."

That makes me sad, because poetry is my life's work and my central joy. I appreciate all kinds of poetry, from free verse to avant-garde experiments. But this column is about one kind of poetry that has been overlooked for decades now:  the kind that rhymes -- or, at least, has a regular beat to it. 

Poetry like these lines from Longfellow's tribute to the city of Portland:

"A boy's will is the wind's will,

and the thoughts of youth are long long thoughts."

For most of the 20th century, many poets were not comfortable talking about, or teaching younger poets about, the value of poetry in such traditional forms.

But now things are different. Rap artists, poetry slammers and other young poets are bringing back formal poetry. While the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine, which I direct, teaches all kinds of poetry, many students in the program are joining in the recent excitement about form. 

They've even been inventing forms of their own, such as Katie Bickham's "quantum" (a form that offers two endings from parallel universes), or Amanda Johnston's "genesis" (a form that unites the voices of seven generations of a family).

I consider these developments great news for poetry.

For one thing, many of us enjoy the way good formal poems make our hearts race, the way our mouths feel when we read them aloud. For another, poetry's traditional forms can do important work for us as a culture. 

People turn to poetry at moments of personal and communal importance: tragedies such as 9/11, weddings, the dedications of monuments, presidential inaugurations. And the job of a poet, especially at such times, is to craft words in a way palpably different from the language of every day. 

Using form may not be the only way to produce effective public poems. But it provides a likely way to hammer out lines strong and memorable and unique enough that they will linger in a listener's body, and from there have a chance to seep into the soul.

What if you are one of those readers ready to find your way back to the joys of formal poetry? In honor of National Poetry Month, here are some tips to help you get started:

• 1. EXPLORE. Browse in a good literary bookstore like Longfellow Books or the library. 

Some of my favorite formal poets are W.B. Yeats, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Langston Hughes, Hart Crane and Molly Peacock. 

Anthologies include Robert Rubn's "Poetry Out Loud," my own "Villanelles" or "A Formal Feeling Comes" or anything edited by Walter de la Mare.

2. LISTEN. Read the poems aloud. 

You may have lost touch with this habit, if you've been reading a lot of free verse (the most common type of contemporary poetry, in irregular lines with no regular rhythm). Brain scans show that free verse is processed by the left brain, the part of the brain that reads prose, while formal, metrical poetry is processed by the right brain, the part that hears music. 

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