April is National Poetry Month, and whatever else that means, it means that we should pay attention to poetry. At Howard Community College, that means it’s time for the annual Blackbird Poetry Festival. Blackbird was inspired by a visit to the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2008. I saw Billy Collins, Mark Doty, Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, and many other wonderful poets. In 2010, I saw Michael Cirelli, and the next year, we had Michael at Blackbird. His poem, “Troubador,” is still one of my favorite poems to teach or talk about with students.
The name of the Blackbird festival comes from the Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” This poem was an inscrutable poem that I first read as a junior in college, and I had a professor who liked to start every class with us reciting this poem in different ways. Over time, I began to see it as a celebration of the many ways that poetry helps us see the extraordinary in the ordinary. So it was natural that this humble festival would take the name of that poem. Although, over time and due largely to a wonderful partnership with HoCoPoLitSo, the Blackbird festival has welcomed not just Cirelli, but also amazing poets like Martin Espada, Taylor Mali, Rives, Kim Addonizio, and even Billy Collins.
The real goal of the festival, for me, has always been to give students a different experience with poetry. Most students only experience poetry on the page in an academic setting. My first real experience with reading poetry was in 9th grade. My teacher at my private, religious high school allowed us to read some of the Romantic poets – mostly Blake and Wordsworth. One of our major assignments of the semester was to memorize and recite a poem to the rest of the class. I chose “I wandered lonely as a cloud” by William Wordsworth. I still remember the entire poem even now. But I didn’t really understand the poem until years later when I walked by a row of daffodils with my dog, Oberon. It was only when I took the poem off the page that it started to mean anything to me.
I teach poetry now, and I normally start teaching poetry with 2 poems from Billy Collins: “Introduction to Poetry” and “The Lanyard” because both of the poems make the principal arguments I hope to advance in teaching poetry to my students. 1: The meaning of poetry is not fixed and is entirely dependent on how the reader experiences it – so I don’t want them to get too caught up in the “real” meaning or the technical aspects of it. Some of the least inspiring poetry teachers I have had beat me over the head with rhyme and meter definitions – as if those things would unlock the wonder and mystery of poetry. 2: Images are everything in poetry because they are full of possibility – see William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson for more on this. Reading poetry should be an exercise in active interpretation, and images allow us to engage in that.
I love the scene in Dead Poets Society when Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) has the students turn to the section called “Understanding Poetry” in their textbooks. In leading them through the ridiculous assessment of the technical and historical wonders of poems, Keating’s larger point is that understanding poetry is synonymous with experiencing poetry. When the class is over, I don’t know that many students will recall the technical parameters of a villanelle, but I hope they do remember what it means to rage against the dying of the light – whatever that might mean to them. I want them to remember that poetry can be “a place for the genuine.” In recent years, poetry has been declared all but dead in the cultural conversation – an archaic art form that might as well be hieroglyphics, but I would argue against that. Poetry is all around us in our song lyrics, in movies, in political protest, in festivals, and yes, even in academia. For one month, we get to remind ourselves of it.
© Ryna May 2016