We're in the middle of April, what T.S. Eliot called "the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain."
Eliot got the details exactly right about April, particularly this April in the mid-valley: We've certainly had spring rain. And we've had flowers bursting out of the dead land. But one of the things good poems do is get the details right, each word carefully chosen and placed in exactly the right place to convey a maximum effect in a relatively small space. (The sprawling "Waste Land," of course, runs for 434 lines, so that's not a particularly small space, but it packs a lot into those lines. As it turns out, Eliot worked hard to trim it down; in fact, those famous first lines are not how the poem originally began; at some point before finishing the poem, he trimmed 54 lines from the start of an earlier draft.)
There's no official connection between "The Waste Land" and National Poetry Month, which we are currently celebrating — the official story is that poetry advocates were impressed by the success of Black History Month in February and Women's History Month in March and wanted to start a similar monthly celebration for poetry. April was the next available month. But surely Eliot's poem crossed the minds of those first organizers back in 1996.
It would probably not be correct to say that National Poetry Month since then has become a national obsession, inspiring parades and festivals from coast-to-coast and leading to an exhausting whirl of poetry parties that jam your social calendar.
But it is a good excuse, if any were needed, to grab a favorite book of poetry (or discover a new one, maybe by one of the mid-valley's fine authors) and discover again why poetry matters. There was a time in this nation's history when most people would be able to recite by memory a favorite poem. Nowadays, most people can do that with a song lyric, which sometimes qualifies as poetry but often falls somewhat short. ("Who let the dogs out? Who? Who? Who? Who? Who?")
National Poetry Month inspires us to renew our acquaintance with poetry. And, since so many poems are meant to be read aloud, it also invites us to resume that long oral tradition through this Thursday's Poem in Your Pocket Day, one of the centerpiece events of National Poetry Month.
This column and many of its readers have long participated in Poem in Your Pocket Day. Here's how it works:
Select a poem (by someone else or by you), place it in a pocket (or purse or briefcase or whatever you have available), carry it with you and share it with others at schools, bookstores, libraries, parks, workplaces, street corners and so on. Got a few minutes on the bus before your stop? It's an opportunity to share a poem — and that likely would provide a highlight of the day for your listener. ("This person on the bus just pulled out a poem from a pocket and read it aloud! And the poem was ... pretty good!")
You can share the poem on social media (use the hashtag #pocketpoem). If you're not going to be in public on Thursday, or if you're in a setting where poetry might seen inappropriate at the time ("Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, before I begin my final argument, here's a poem."), consider adding a poem to your tagline as you send out email.
Need some inspiration? The website poets.org (run by the Academy of American Poets, the organization behind National Poetry Month) features a selection of poems that you could use on Thursday. (The online version of this column includes a PDF that features a number of those poems and other suggestions.)
If you're worried that you won't have any opportunities to read a poem aloud on Thursday, don't fret: Read it to me. On Thursday, the message on the phone in my Corvallis office (541-758-9502) will include my own selection for Poem in Your Pocket Day — and then, after the beep, you can read your own pick. The first year I tried this, I was frankly surprised and gratified by the number of readers who responded. Let's do it again.
However, a word of warning: If you want to read "The Waste Land," you had best choose an excerpt: Our voicemail system doesn't allow for messages of that length. (mm)