My lifelong relationship with poetry began at age five when my mother read AA Milne’s Now we are six“They change the guard at Buckingham Palace/Christopher Robin is down with Alice”, which delighted me so much that I, in turn, propped my dolls up on chairs and performed these same lines to them. My grandmother from kyiv was reciting Pushkin in Russian from memory, the two of us huddled together on the sofa in her dark living room. I didn’t understand a word, but the music of the verse, the joy and passion in its recitation, was like a trapdoor – a room I never wanted to get out of.
My first poetry reading, 2n/a from Public School 75 in New York City, called the Emily Dickinson School (foreshadowing?), was a rhyme from my notebook: “When I grow up/I’ll be a nurse./A better one/You’ll never see!/ Whenever you need it night or day / Just call me, I’ll be on the way!” I stood on that dark auditorium stage in my black patent leather Mary Janes, my heart pounding as I spoke the words of Flag Day, all of us in white button down shirts and red ties Probably the happiest day of my school life.
In the 7and year, when Miss Josephs read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” to us, while I could see that some of my classmates had glassy eyes, I “got” the meaning and understood how “Two Roads Have diverged in a wood, and I —/I took the one who traveled the least,/And that made all the difference” meant one thing, and then it meant the other thing. Yes! A poem could be folded like a paper fan, opening up meaning after meaning, image after image, bringing more joy. Here is a simple poem about choosing between two country roads, but also about all the choices we make and will make throughout our lives. Yes! I understood, and I remember feeling less alone in this class. It is a poem that I still read aloud today for comfort and pleasure. For the music of it.
For those of us who write and read poetry all year round, we can’t imagine our life without it.
As we turn the page on another hopeful April (the “crueldest month,” according to TS Elliot), we also say goodbye to National Poetry Month, the 30 days set aside each year for honor and appreciate poetry. The Academy of American Poets launched this commemorative month in April 1996, saying, “National Poetry Month reminds the public that poets have a vital role to play in our culture and that poetry matters.
Given my undying love for poetry, I find it ironic, even exasperating, to think that we need to remind others that poetry is important, in the same way that I find it disturbing that we have to be reminded in February, the of Black History, that Black History Matters, or in March, Women’s History Month, that women made a difference! Poetry, the minority of literature, follows in April and has the chance to be honoured, remembered and celebrated 30 days a year.
I can’t imagine life without poetry. For me and anyone who feels the same, I wonder where, in his absence, we would turn to seek solace, humor, surprise? What other writing than a poem can we spend five minutes reading just before bed, or first thing in the morning, and instantly feel understood and connected to another human being? Otherwise, how could we see our own story through the concise, insightful and emotional words of a stranger?
The great poet WH Auden said, “Poetry could be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings. For me, everything is said. That’s why I write poetry and why I read it. He can explain the inexplicable, unravel the unbearable or confusing, help me put my dark or ecstatic feelings into words. It can also make me laugh. And most of us, when we fall in love, when a baby is born, look for a poem. At our wedding, give me a poem, please! And, of course, when a loved one passes by, it’s a poem that captures our loss.
After my mother died in 2011, my poems about her came out fast and furiously. Comedic, sad, revealing – composing them pulled me through and beyond the years of our relationship, and in putting pen to paper, our relationship changed. Not all poetry is autobiographical. The events themselves may not be true, but for the poem to “work”, to connect with others, the feelings, the emotions must be genuine. And they were.
My mother and I started a new relationship after his death. She would probably like to know all about it – and I know she would have a lot to say about it – but I’m sure I gave her a few lines in my poems that she would like, that would make her happy. What annoyed me about her when she was alive, I found humor in it. As I gained a “clearer expression of mixed feelings,” I gained a new appreciation for her, for us. Sweet regrets. The anger dissipated. A much less complicated love was what was left.
Some of those mixed feelings are still stirred around Mother’s Day every year. And while I’m both relieved and sad that I no longer have to worry about whether I’m going to buy her the right gift or take her to the right restaurant for lunch to mark the occasion, I can count on a poem who will come out to help me sort out these feelings. Since my mother left, hundreds of poems have sprung up, and I’ve collected the ones I love the most in a volume I’ve titled I wore this dress today for you, mom– a gift that I wish I could wrap and give to her in person.
Now a mother myself, I have inherited the tradition of Mother’s Day and still hope for a special day, but most of all I want to spend time with my son. In my new relationship with my mother which evolved through the writing of these poems, I believe that all she really wanted was a whole day with me, doing nothing but being together, sitting in the garden, watching the birds, laughing, listening to each other’s stories, maybe reading a poem or two.
Kim Dower, former Poet Laureate of West Hollywood, is the author of five books of poetry. I wore this dress today for you, momjust published by Red Hen Press.
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