SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

April 29, 2013

Why poetry? Why now?

January Gill O'Neil
The Salem News

---- — Since poet Richard Blanco read his beautiful and inspiring poem “One Today” during President Barack Obama’s second inauguration on Jan. 21, poetry has entered the public dialogue again. It has even inspired this anti-poetry article (washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost/wp/2013/01/22/is-poetry-dead/), which has been universally dismissed by academics and the general public alike.

But as we find ourself in April and National Poetry Month, the question of poetry’s relevance is again front and center. Why poetry? Why now?

Founded by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month has become a cultural effort to raise awareness of poetry and poetry events everywhere. April, the so-called “cruelest month,” became the chosen month christened by T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland.” In truth, there is much to cheer about in April because there is no shortage of opportunities to experience poetry. It is everywhere. Poetry is where we go when nowhere else will do.

Why do we need a National Poetry Month in 2013? Poets will tell you that every month is National Poetry Month. Every moment of every day requires such jubilance and celebration. But for most people, to experience poetry — meaning to read it, write it, share it or speak it — is a way of connecting to the world. Social media can only bring us so close. Poetry says, “I get it. I understand you.”

We connect to poetry because we recognize something in ourselves in the poems — something unanswered, some longing. Poets give voice to those emotions and situations. Poems celebrate the extraordinary in the ordinary: from birth to death and the moments in between. They push against the borders of what is accepted in pleasant company and reach into silence, past the border of what is acceptable or recognized, toward that which is difficult to name. We go to poetry when we can’t find the right words.

Is poetry dead? No.

There will always be those who feel poetry is dead or, even worse, dying. But poetry is thriving. There has never been a better time to take a poetry class, attend a reading or festival such as the Massachusetts Poetry Festival (link to masspoetry.org), or publish verse in print and online. And National Poetry Month is the perfect time to find poetry in your community, where it has always been, recording our histories through emotion and words.

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January Gill O’Neil is a poet and assistant professor at Salem State University and executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, which takes place in Salem from May 3-5 this year. For more information about the festival, visit masspoetry.org.