“A long time ago, I wrote a poem titled “What Would a Poet Do?” In my reflection, I considered how poets react to world events differently from the general population. I mentioned how Oliver Wendell Holmes’ 1830s poem “Old Ironsides” had raised public awareness and helped save the ship USS Constitution from being decommissioned. I cited how Mary Oliver’s appeal in “A Summer’s Day” – “What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?” – is a call to action for all of us to live fully each day.
Some of what I wrote was based on Naples Daily News columnist Michael Hickey’s idea that poetry is wisdom language. I speculated that poets have something to say that engages their readers in a fresh way. Now that 2021 is behind us, I wonder again what part poetry played in your life – whether or not you call yourself a poet or a poem reader; that is, did any of you use verse to ease your struggle?
Here we are in April, National Poetry Month, established in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets to present the achievements and contributions of American poets and to encourage support for them and their work. During this month, special emphasis is placed on verse, but evidence from regional bookstores has shown me that poetry did not sit idly on shelves for the other 11 months.
The Lake Forest Book Store reports on inaugural and Super Bowl LV poet Amanda Gorman, whose new book, “Call Us What We Carry,” was number three on their Top Ten Books Sold in 2021. Customers purchased 212 copies that contain lines like these: “Every day we are learning, how to live with essence, not ease; how to move with haste, never hate.”
Heidi Schmidt, manager/buyer for Town House Books in St. Charles, says this about her experience: “We are believers in the importance of literature, in general, and poetry, in particular, to help us through times of confusion. It is encouraging that more people seem to be tapping into the unique role that poetry can play in their lives. Audre Lorde: Collected Poems’ is by far our poetic best seller.”
I asked owner Arlene Lynes how many poetry books had been sold during 2021 at Read Between The Lynes independent bookstore in Woodstock. Her finding de ella: 179 poetry books, 51 of them being “Call Us What We Carry” by 23-year-old Gorman. However, a significant variety of other publications had been chosen, including Billy Collins’ “180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day.” In addition, I was lucky enough to receive a popular volume from my daughter for Christmas: “Poet Warrior, A Memoir,” written by current US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, the first Indigenous person to be named Poet Laureate of the United States. This excerpt from her poem “Do n’t Bother the Earth Spirit” demonstrates Harjo’s connection from her to her roots from her:
“Don’t bother the earth spirit who lives here.
She is working on a story.
It is the oldest story in the world
and it is delicate, changing.
If she sees you watching,
she will invite you in for coffee,
give you warm bread,
and you will be obliged to stay and listen.”
As poetry books were purchased and read during the past year, bars on many levels continued writing. My dear friend and Cary resident Jerry Wendt would often email me early in the morning saying, “The muse struck again in the night, and I wrote this poem as soon as I rose. What do you think? He was one of my poetry pals – an honest critic of my work – as I was of his. Before he died unexpectedly on Dec. 17, 2021, he felt me “The Old Farm.” Now, the last stanza seems prophetic.
“A floating setting sun
casts orange and pink reflection
from the old barn
onto my craggy countenance,
giving rise to thought
that end for both of us is near.”
While hunkering down, I took two, two-part Zoom poetry classes that were offered by the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets of which I am a member. The second class centered on studying and writing grief poems. My offering below chronicles the many deaths recorded in newspapers during the past year:
“My friends die asking,
‘Where did the time go?’
Their lives were segmented:
Work, eat, love, sleep,
death always the final piece.
I want to answer, ‘Unending time
goes nowhere, dear friends,
but our lives float by
like dust motes
in the morning sun.’”
Poets continued to observe and write during the past year. Their authentic voices gave others permission to express their feelings. Writer Bijal A. Shah says, “Poetry is one of the most powerful forms of therapy. In a time of loss of spontaneity and control, poetry helps people heal and move on.”
Last year, many of you invited a poem into your life; but still another poem is waiting to be read. Last year, people continued to write; but still another page is waiting to be filled. And I wonder what a poet will do to bear witness to our common humanity in 2022.
• Jan Bosman of Woodstock taught English and business for 32 years, the last 22 at Johnsburg High School. She is also a published essayist and poet and a member of the Atrocious Poets of McHenry County and the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.