A Quick Guide to National Poetry Month

04/14/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The decision to designate April National Poetry Month, I'm disappointed to report, had nothing to do with T.S. Eliot deeming it the "cruelest month," nothing to do with Chaucer's famed preface to the Canterbury Tales, nor anything even to do with Spring. It turns out that the Academy of American Poets, which started the tradition ten years ago, didn't have much choice. February is Black History Month, March is Women's History Month, and April is Dutch Heritage Month...oh yes, you can double park there.

The month-long celebration is intended to draw attention to poetry, and it kicked off this past Tuesday, as it does every year, with a gala at Lincoln Center in New York. The event featured Meryl Streep, Katie Couric, and Oscar winning director Jonathan Demme, among others, reading their favorite poems. The celebs helped lend some glitz (and some attention) to an art that spends the rest of the year as far as possible from show business. It was well-received most. Reaction I found online could be summed up as either "It was wonderful" or "I couldn't hear a thing." Poets, not surprisingly, not so good with things like sound systems.

Today is only April 6th, of course, and National Poetry Month is just getting warmed up. The Academy's website is an excellent place to see what the month has to offer. There you can find information about readings in your area, sign up to receive a poem each day in April, search for your favorite poems and poets, and get information on the Academy's National Poetry Month programs. Here are some of the highlights:

Poems for Your Pocket Day

The Academy has designated April 17th as a day to share poetry. You're encouraged to bring a poem to work or school in, well, your pocket. The academy has a great web page set up where you can print small--and more critically--foldable poems which you pick based on keywords. The word fire, for example, takes you to Gerard Manley Hopkins' tight, fervent poem As Kingfishers Catch Fire:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves--goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;

Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is--

Chríst--for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

Too pious for your pocket? Frog links to Emily Dickinson's I'm Nobody! Who Are You?

I'm Nobody! Who are you?

Are you ‐ Nobody ‐ too?

Then there's a pair of us?

Don't tell! they'd advertise ‐ you know!

How dreary ‐ to be ‐ Somebody!

How public ‐ like a Frog ‐

To tell one's name ‐ the livelong June ‐

To an admiring Bog!

Poetry...Technology (?!)

Sound systems aside, this year's celebration is also surprisingly tech savvy. On the aforementioned 17th, the Academy will unveil a 2,500 poem archive accessible from your iPhone or, I assume, any iPhone-like device (I am not so tech savvy). Poetry fans can access poet podcasts throughout April, and there's even a Poem for Your Pocket widget for Mac users. I'd tell you more about that if I knew what a widget was.

Your Poetry Story

There's also a great feature called Poetfan where you can read stories of how poetry has touched people's lives and even share your own. Here's one of my favorite examples:

I work as a caregiver. I've made a friend working with dementia patients. A former poet, Brina is a 94-year-old woman...My employers believed we would have a lot to talk about. This decision was based on the fact that I have Shakespearean verse...tattooed on my left forearm. Brina and I have perpetually been reading Yeats together...I had planned on my next tattoo being Shakespeare on the occasion of my marriage. It will now be the closing lines in "The Song of Wandering Aengus" when Brina dies: "The silver apples of the moon, / the golden apples of the sun."

These stories of poetry's power won't surprise you avid poetry readers, but they may surprise those unfamiliar with the art. I'd encourage you to use this month as an excuse to spread the word (literally). That is, if you're not too busy celebrating Dutch Heritage.