‘What makes a good poem? And how can I write one? Even if I did – what’s the point?’ -Anonymous

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

April has been celebrated as National Poetry Month since the Academy of American Poets started it in 1996. Inspiration for it came from the establishing of Black History Month (February) and Women’s History Month (March). For 20 years April’s poems have blossomed exponentially and become so popular, as well as inspirational, that poem writing in April has spread all over the world, according to this group.

Which means the world probably has more poets than anybody will ever read, but it’s better than having that many many politicians.

In our compulsion to make the names of things sound like cell phone texting, an offshoot of poetry month in America is called NaPoWriMo — National Poetry Writing Month. (Before I looked it up, I deciphered it as Native Poets Write More.) This part of the month-long tribute is an assignment to write a poem a day. If you are interested, ask Mrs. Google. She’ll tell you how it works. You might come out of it able to write a sonnet. If you stick with it, you might conquer tritinas (I’d never heard of this form, and like many kinds of poems, tritinas are hardly ever written because they are strictly ruled by a certain number of lines, stanzas and repetition of words). You’ve probably heard of ballads and odes and sonnets (seventh grade literature). Or blank verse, which doesn’t have to rhyme but the lines have the same number of syllables; or free verse, which is like talking: no rules.

A limerick is a kind of poem that is tricky but fun, especially the bawdy ones, the kind I won’t be writing for today’s edition of a community newspaper. Because of the risqué nature of many limericks (they are Irish, after all), they are not a form we learned in school, thus their popularity in bars. Limericks should be funny, and they need three long lines that rhyme and two short lines that rhyme, in this order: There once was a guy from County Greene/ Who was six feet tall and very lean/ He ate all day/ But to his dismay/ Remained as slight as a garden bean.

Not really that amusing, or bawdy, but you get the idea.

The root of the word poetry is Greek poieo, meaning to make. One can make a lot of things: a bed, a dress, a dinner, a plan, a mess. That a word which encompasses just about everything defines the word “poem” is a big deal and important because the co-opting of such a useful word is obviously a coup; there is power in them there poems.

For a time, my life mantra was “Eat vegetables, write poetry.” During that period I myself wrote what I called “Pome-a-Day.” This was before the Academy of Poets did the same thing, or at least if they were doing this I didn’t know it. The practice is not hard, is often fun and can take just a second to do. My favorite poem of that period was a one-liner: “Duck, duck, serious duck.” When I tell this poem to people, no one gets it. I tell them that’s what makes it poetry, which they do get.

When we were in school and had to read poetry and tell the teacher what it meant (or were forced to listen to her telling us), many of my classmates learned that poetry was a form of torture. Besides that, Miss Fields made us memorize it, so most of my classmates fell under the miasma of loathing it with no hope of escaping it.

A few of us took to it. Since my dad was often spouting poetry, my having to learn it in school did not frighten me. Over the years I’ve memorized poems to keep me from going crazy when stuck in traffic or when I’m very lonely or very sad. Repeating “Duck, duck, serious duck” can make me smile, and reciting longer poems can take up a lot of time that would otherwise be wasted in anger, sighs or tears. I don’t suggest off-the-cuff reciting of poetry to friends. In my experience, most of them pretend they’re deaf.

But poetry is in us all — it is atavistic, meaning before written human history when folks in caves talked stories in a way that made people fall in love with the words that told the tales of their lives. And now, in the post-modern era we live in, writing it down now and then, or memorizing a line or two, or reading it before bed — these are things that can save a day, take our minds off the circus of a Presidential election year or the problems of the world or just the dismays of our own worlds. Really, poetry can be like candy in that it pleases us; or like drugs in that it removes us into Lala Land.

In parting, here’s light verse (a form you might try, for it is fun) by Ogden Nash; slightly amusing, nicely rhyming, appropriate for April: Abracadabra, thus we learn/ The more you create, the less you earn./ The more you earn, the less you keep,/ And now I lay me down to sleep./ I pray the Lord my soul to take/ If the tax man ain’t got it before I wake. 


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