How to Read a Poem in April—A Primer

Sarah's light and coffee

Is there a poem in your heart? There’s always one in mine, but I never quite know how to get it out. Sometimes you’ll find me, standing on the street, staring out into the distance, trying to put some amalgamation of light and sound and air I’m feeling into words, but, alas. Someone always comes along and interrupts my reverie with a ridiculous question that they’re convinced passes for conversation.

“Hey, you look like you’re in a daze,” they’ll say, adding: “What are you thinking about right now?”

“Um, sunlight, actually,” I’ll retort.

Solitude is precious.

Any form of inner-voice-forging, soul-nurturing time invested is time well spent.

Last fall I set about a challenge for myself: I’d read more poetry, and even try to memorize poems; that way, I’d always have one handy if someone asks what’s on my mind.

I started with “Sailing to Byzantium” by W.B. Yeats. Easy-peasy to memorize. But much harder to recite—and harder still to find the right occasion on which to recite it.

In a bar? I figured that’d be perfect. So one night, over take-out Chinese broccoli and rice at a pub on 23rd Street, I recited it for what I thought was a receptive friend.

“Uh, huh?” and “Okay” were all I can remember that he said. It wasn’t encouraging.

Sarah bar photo1

My next attempt was at a coffee bar, in broad daylight; I shouted it over the noise of the cappuccino machine at my barista, who is red-haired, and Irish-Irish, not American-Irish, so I figured she’d like it. She looked at me, stunned and more than a little horrified, as if at a faux pas, as if I’d struck her. She said, “I can’t believe you’re doing this,” and “I can’t hear you properly,” and other more encouraging stuff like that.

The third time I chose a bar as my setting (I figured that worked at least), and I chose the person with more care (a writing major from the University of Iowa who wrote a thesis on modern poetry), and I waited until our second shot of Jameson. I leaned in to her as if I were about to tell her some personal anecdote, and recited it, not quite softly, but not quite vigorously— taking time with the words, knowing that they were good stuff. The second I finished she leaned way back, a smile on her face and said. “Oh my G-d, thank you, I never heard it, I mean, really heard it, before.”

This is SO much fun.

You try.

How?

April is National Poetry Month, and if you go to Poets.org, you’ll get all sorts of suggestions for activities. My favorite is April 18th, which is “Poem in your Pocket Day.” The latter is an event, officially sanctioned by Mayor Bloomberg, in which you, or anyone like you, is “allowed” to go around town with a poem in your pocket: the idea is, you take it out, recite it to anyone you meet on the street, and no one can stop you. Now, you have no excuse.

Got the nerve?

It’s not easy, I admit, so I will give you a few pointers:

Have more than one poem to choose from so you can change up.

All the books you see in this post aren't mine -- they belong to Alanna Wray, who got her poetry M.F.A. from Hunter and introduced me to a whole lotta great poetry.

All the books you see in this post aren’t mine — they belong to Alanna Wray, who got her poetry M.F.A. from Hunter and introduced me to a whole lotta great poetry.

Select at least one really short poem. That way, before the person freaks out, you’re done!

Ask the person if they have a preference for a particular poem or poet.

Group what you have by theme. Anything you like. My choices thus far are: Dreams, Friendship, Stuff that Rhymes, Lesser-known Contemporary Poets. (This could be you, your friend. I intend to read stuff by my neighbor who is actually pretty darned good!)

Write one or two yourself about the experience.

And don’t let anyone interrupt you. Tell them “April is National Poetry Month” and leave it at that.