Maybe you don't know this: We're in the middle of National Poetry Month.
I hesitated before telling you. Part of me winces at such contrived celebrations. So often they end up lofty intentions run to ground.
Take Women's History Month, which is in March. I always wonder whether the take-home message is this: Think really hard for a whole month about remarkable women, and then you're off the hook for the next 11 months. Not helpful.
All you have to do is watch a few evening talk shows to see that America hasn't quite found its groove when it comes to taking the women thing seriously. Consider the recent CNN segment in which an all-male panel pontificated on the all-female class action suit against Walmart Stores Inc.
No, wait: Infuriating. That's what I mean.
Which brings me to National Poetry Month, which is a tribute to those who find the perfect word.
For most of my life, I have loved poetry. My affection is driven as much by envy as it is by admiration.
Like most humans, I feel life deeply and long for the words to explain myself. Whenever I try to write poetry, I end up with limericks, at best. I have a habit of hiding behind punch lines, which does little to salve the soul. So I am moved to reverence for strangers who somehow seem to mine my hardest secrets and set them free.
I was in my 40s before I was willing to share my love of poetry. I was an insecure fan, always fearing that my confession would elicit scholarly chuckles from those far more knowledgeable about the craft. But it was just such a learned friend who encouraged me to relax already.
"Who cares what someone else thinks a poem means?" she said. "What matters is what the poem means to you."
Soon after that, a friend encouraged me to sign up for a poem-a-week e-mail from Richard Bruno, an advertising and marketing executive in New York. She knows well my disdain for gobbledygook masquerading as depth, and she was certain I would like Bruno's selections.
I sent him an e-mail, and he kindly agreed to add me to the list.
For several years now, a new poem arrives every Monday. Last week's was by Jane Hirshfield.
Seawater stiffens cloth long after it's dried.
As pain after it's ended stays in the body.
I am hooked and read on, ready to experience what Bruno calls "the sublime flash of insight that makes me gasp a little."
When I heard it was National Poetry Month, guilt got the best of me, and I decided to call Richard Bruno. I owed him long-overdue thanks. I also wanted to ask why, in this rush-rush-rush world we live in, he takes the time to send a poem to 300 people every week.
He laughed when I asked whether he was ever a poet.
"I wrote my share of twisted little nuggets of tortured insight," he said, "but I stopped trying in my 20s." He's 62 now.
In 1999, Richard decided to try using poetry as a meaningful way to stay in touch with friends. He searches for simple wonders.
"A lot of poetry in the 20th century moved toward inscrutability," he said. "I'm all for the twisted, knotty poems, but I go to extraordinary lengths to find poems accessible on first read."
A few months ago, he sent a poem by Rachel Wetzsteon, who echoed my command for the end of summer:
Make me spontaneous,
gathering winds, but don't
blow so giddily I teeter too much.
Ellie Schoenfeld's poem stirred a memory from my youth:
I Ride Greyhound
because it's like being in a John Steinbeck novel.
Next best thing is the laundromat.
I type these and feel the familiar tug of self-consciousness. You may see nothing in these verses. You may find them a waste of your time.
That's okay, I know. But still.
And so, in these crazy times in which we live, I offer this excerpt from one of my all-time favorite poems, "note, passed to superman,"
by the late Lucille Clifton:
lord, man of steel,
i understand the cape,
the leggings, the whole
ball of wax.
you can trust me,
there is no planet stranger
than the one i'm from.
I can't say it any better, no matter how hard I try.
© 2011 Creators Syndicate