So, April was National Poetry Month. For a lot of people, that’s National “Who Cares?” Month or National “Ughhh, Poetry” Month. For friends and family of poets, it might double as National “So, when are you going to get a real job?” Month. But for readers of poetry and poets themselves, April is an acknowledgement and celebration of the practice of living life inquisitively, of not taking things for granted, of the struggle to comprehend the world on a deeper level, and of the personal rewards that a handful of metaphors chopped into a string of lines can bring.
As a poet myself, I can say that poetry is also a lifesaver.
The other day, I told my wife I’d written a new poem. Her response was, “Is it good? Is it terrifying, like always?” Fair point: one of the complaints – or, let’s call them observations – I get about a lot of my poems are that they are bleak, especially considering how upbeat and optimistic I tend to come off as as a person. But here’s the thing:
Neurologically speaking, I’m at least minorly depressed most of the time, even when I’m having a generally okay time of things. Despite lacking any desire to take self-harmful action, my mind feeds me thoughts of suicide on an alarmingly regular basis (a couple times a month at minimum). In middle school, I almost listened.
I am not a natural-born communicator, so before I committed myself to the study and practice of writing, living was a much scarier prospect. Like most adolescents, I had a great deal of painful things on my mind and very little means of expressing them. My bottle of emotions was shaking and building in pressure with perfectionism and self-hatred and uncorking it without some intervention would have been impossible or catastrophic.
But then: Poetry.
Fifteen years ago, probably during National Poetry Month, I had to do a 10th grade report on Li-Young Lee, of whom before which I had been completely ignorant. I devoured “Persimmons” and “I Ask My Mother to Sing” (Just typing the title of the latter waters my eyes). It was the first time poetry really connected with me personally. “Persimmons” expressed the struggle to communicate and the malleability of language in a way that resonated deeply. “I Ask My Mother to Sing” was vibrant and sad and triumphant all at once, and its quick, simple language planted someone else’s experience in my head forever after. I got one of my worst grades on that paper, but I gained something far more important: an appreciation of a genre that so many scoff at or view as archaic.
When pop culture remembers that poetry even exists, it typically reduces it to a couplet of trite, overly sentimental rhymes. If not that, poetry is used as a punchline in a comedy, usually to belittle whichever hapless fool expresses interest. The year before my epiphany, Newsweek published an opinion piece called “Poetry is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care?” That was just 2003’s entrant in a long tradition of clickbait statements perpetuated across news outlets for decades. It’s an appealing headline, for sure, and one that reinforces the stigma against poetry, but it turns out that people do care. Even the cynical writer of the Newsweek article got around to touting poetry’s value by the end of the piece, but who read that far?
The majority of people may not care about poetry, but perhaps that’s because it has long been introduced in classrooms with an anchor strapped to its ankle, sucked into the impossible depths of confusion by too much focus on overwhelming, ancient poems by the long-dead “Masters.” I can relate. For me, poetry was nothing but an abstract until I read the right poems. There are hundreds of exciting, relevant contemporary poets addressing, with extraordinary clarity, the challenge of living in the modern world with all its disparity, fear, and changes. These poets manage to find joy and hope amidst the struggle – they speak to the disenfranchised and afraid, the hopeful and alone who are yearning to know that someone else “gets” them. During these past few years of heightened social tension in the US, poetry has seen a resurgence. Perhaps, miraculously, more people are finally finding the right poems. To me, it’s fitting that National Poetry Month immediately precedes May, National Mental Health Awareness Month – I’ve struggled for a long time with mental health and poetry has been a constant companion, through the best and the worst. If you or someone you love is lacking poetry in your life, seek help. Poems are easy to find and many of them take less than a minute to read. One might make all the difference.
And if you or someone you love is facing mental health challenges of their own, you’re not alone. There are a million resources out there, but here’s a few:
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
National Alliance on Mental Illness: 1-800-950-6264