Happy National Poetry Month! . . . An Apologia

That’s right—it’s once again time for the Academy of American Poetsannual celebration. And this year the Academy turns eighty, so special things are in the offing.  Stay tuned for more news of festivities, but in the meantime . . . read a poem! And before you do that . . . read this blog!

I had originally intended to use my post to argue that poetry is beneficial because learning about it improves children’s cognitive performance in school. But then, after some reflection, I abandoned the plan. Why? Because poetry doesn’t have to prove its worth with statistics. Metrics have taken over our thinking about schooling, and in doing so, have missed out on what’s really important about art.

So here’s why poetry—during National Poetry Month or otherwise—is so vital: it enriches our lives. While reading a poem, we witness the joy, sadness, and beauty of the poet’s life. We learn new things about language. We discover new insight into the ideas of people whose perspectives we could never have imagined. And we do so in concert with every other person who has ever read that poem, even if every other person has a completely different take on its meaning. In other words, we come to understand our place in the human family. All that, in just a few minute spots of ink or a few coded ones and zeros.

And that is what art is for!

Put a Poem in Your Pocket!

Greetings, loyal readers!  Today is Poem in Your Pocket Day, an event organized by the Academy of American Poets to spread the joy of literature far and wide.  Here’s a link to the website for the event, which features easily downloadable (and therefore printable) poems from a wide variety of writers on an even wider variety of topics.  Be sure to hand one to friends, loved ones, or even total strangers today!

Now, off to the Booth School of Business to delight and annoy with my own pile of pocket poems!

Dickinson and the Dash

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), there are several kosher uses for the em dash (as opposed to hyphens and en dashes, which will be discussed in a later entry).  You can use pairs of them to set off a statement in the same way you’d use parentheses or commas (6.82).  You can also use it, as discussed in 6.83, “to set off an introductory noun, or a series of nouns, from a pronoun that introduces the main clause” (as in “Theresa’s blog—it’s an underappreciated masterpiece”).  It can also be used to express a sudden break in thought (6.84), or before “that is” or “namely” (6.85), or to start a line of dialog (6.88; rare in American usage).

…and then there’s Emily Dickinson.  She breaks all the rules, and that’s why we love her.  Check out poem 620 (she did not give her poems formal titles).

Much Madness is divinest Sense—
To a discerning Eye—
Much Sense—the starkest Madness—
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail—
Assent—and you are sane—
Demur—you’re straightway dangerous—
And handled with a Chain—

Just think of her, shut alone in her room, staring out at  the mountains, and thinking to herself, “A comma?  Screw that!  Written English, it’s time to bend.”

Or a more prim version of that sentiment, anyhow.  Her formal experimentation is part of what makes her so modernistic and so expressive.  Oddly, though, Dickinson’s daring with punctuation wasn’t widely known until Thomas H. Johnson’s 1955 edition of her poetry.  His was the first collection to include her body of work in its entirety, and the first to retain her original style, dashes and all.  Dickinson’s reputation grew from obscure to grand over the course of the twentieth century, and Johnson’s effort to let her poetry stand on its own was one of the factors behind her rise.  So here’s to the em dash!