best words, best order

For the last 20 days or so, I've had the well-meaning intention to sit down and write a long entry about National Poetry Month.  Now that half of April has already left us, I may have finally arrived at some appropriate words. Thanks to a series of coincidental scheduling opportunities, I was able to head to Francis W. Parker School last night to hear Billy Collins read.  Anyone who knows me will know how unbelievably exciting this event was for me.  Seeing Mr. Collins in person was like seeing a portrait step out of its painting.  It was a familiar voice delivering familiar words, yet to see it happening in real time right in front of me was surreal.

Afterwards, as Mr. Collins signed my copy of Horoscopes for the Dead, I asked him if his readers ever find his poetry funnier than he originally intended.  Yes, he answered, for instance with the poem "On Turning Ten," which begins lighthearted, but ends rather darkly.  The audience is there, having a good time, wanting to laugh, and the turn of mood doesn't quite catch them.

While I've spent many hours dissecting each footstep and ray of light in my favorite Collins poems, I still miss important moments from time to time.  Pay attention to a different phrase, and the entire meaning of the poem changes.  Reread an old favorite at a different place in your life, and you never know what you will seem new.

Several weeks ago, in an attempt to turn a particularly disagreeable day, I turned off the radio in my car and instead recited Whitman: Song of Myself, No. 52.  Reciting poetry to oneself is not, I imagine, something that most people do when passing time in the car, but on that particular afternoon, the words arrived like a familiar friend.  I have recited that piece on mountaintops and beaches; I have sounded my barbaric yawp over rooftops and plains and the din of other cars -- just as I have recited "Aimless Love," "Shoveling Snow with Buddha," and other bits of Collins that get stuck in my head (or written on my arms, or in my journals).

For those who do not spend their time studying and memorizing verse, the relationship of a reader to his favorite poems may seem incomprehensible.  But those of us who make sympathetic mmmm sounds at the completion of each piece, who pre-order new volumes and recall lines for every toast, speech, and gathering -- we wear language like an old coat, well-loved protection from wind and snow.

That's what it was like to hear Billy Collins reading "Fishing on the Susquehanna in July" -- the Art Institute of Chicago filled in the spaces around me, and I seemed to be standing in front a Whistler landscape.

Then I blinked and moved on to other American scenes of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,

even one of a brown hare who seemed so wired with alertness I imagined him springing right out of the frame.

Here's hoping that the rest of National Poetry Month is as fantastic as the beginning.  Carry a poem in your pocket tomorrow.  Share it with others.  Keep reading.  Keep writing.