April is National Poetry Month, a painful reminder for some, who suffered under English teachers who made them write about the cherry tree wearing white for Eastertide or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Pruneface” by T.S. Eliot, that small dark cloud of a poet.
We all suffered under English teachers who forced us to pretend to be sensitive and to sigh with appreciation over the plums in the icebox so sweet and so cold, and that is why reading poetry aloud has been shown, time and time again, to be effective at breaking up gatherings of people. Many police departments now use Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” instead of pepper spray.
We resisted poetry in school because we could see that it is full of falsehood. Love is not the star to every wandering bark, and many true minds have married who should have stayed friends. April is not the cruelest month, March is. The best minds of our generation are not starving, hysterical, naked — most of them are well-fed, calm and stylishly dressed, thank you. Robert Frost’s little horse was absolutely right: It is queer to stop without a farmhouse near, the darkest evening of the year. Dishonesty has given poetry a bad reputation. You see that uneven right margin and you think, “Oh boy, here we go again. Hallucinationville.”
So I am not suggesting that you sit down and read poems for Poetry Month, but that you write your own poem for someone whom you dearly love.
Love is never easy to express. Rage is simple; loneliness, despair — a child could do it. And they do, especially preschoolers. But love is a challenge, especially for men.
Men are wired for combat, to bash the enemy into submission, and it’s hard to wipe the blood and gore off your hands and sit down and write, “O wondrous thou, the wonderment of these my happiest days, I lift my pen to praise thy shining beauty” and so forth.
But you can do it. The first step is: Imitate. Google “great love poems” and find one you like a lot and copy and paste it onto a blank page — Burns’s “My love is like a red, red rose” or Stevenson’s “I will make you brooches and toys for your delight” or Yeats’s “Wine comes in at the mouth and love comes in at the eye” — and simply change the nouns, e.g. “My love is like a double bed” or “a trip to town,” “a vision pure,” “a red T-shirt”; “I will make you coffee and serve by candlelight”; “I come in the front door and love comes down from upstairs” — and then go on to plug in new verbs and adverbs, prepositions. It’s like remodeling an old house.
If you were very ambitious, you could take off from Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 29, “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” and rewrite that. The first eight lines are about how dreary and hopeless you feel, the last six about how you feel exalted by her love. Simple. Keep the rhymes — “eyes, cries, state, fate, hope, scope, possessed, the great Midwest” — and replace the rest.
Write the poem in black ink on a sheet of white paper — poems should never be sent by email, and never, never, never text a poem — hand it to her and as she reads it, put one hand on her shoulder so that you’re right there when she turns with tears in her eyes to embrace you and forgive you for every way you’ve messed up her life. This is the power of poetry. Poets get the girl.
Football heroes get concussions or need hip replacements. My classmates who played football are walking with canes and moaning when they sit down, and they find it hard to figure out the 10 percent tip at lunch. We poets go sashaying along, perpetually 17, lost in wonder at the ordinary, astonished by streetlights, in awe at lawn ornaments, bedazzled by baristas releasing steam into milk for the lattes.
This is what you learn during Poetry Month. You may lose the vote, fall into debt, suffer illness and remorse, feel lost in the crowd, and yet there is in language, everyday language, a source of such sweet delight that when you turn it to a good purpose, two gentle arms may reach around your neck, just as is happening to me right now, and a familiar voice speaks the words I long to hear and my heart is going like mad and yes, I say, yes I will Yes.
Garrison Keillor is an author and radio personality.