April is National Poetry Month. Why, you may be asking, do we need a month devoted to celebrating poetry? Let’s start with the obvious: the pleasure of language, of hearing our own inner responses that we’d be embarrassed to say ourselves given voice by poetry. Let’s go a little deeper, shall we? In a time when our civil and political discourse has become so divisive, sometimes to the point where friends and neighbors are no longer speaking to each other, maybe we need the music of poetry and the joys of art in all its manifestations to lift us above the divisions and the silences.
While trying to do some early spring cleaning in my office, I came across a page I’d saved from Our State, North Carolina’s monthly magazine. While serving as North Carolina’s poet laureate, I was invited to write a short piece on the topic “Why We Love North Carolina” for the February 2009 issue. I remember asking myself, “Where to begin?” Then I looked up and saw an old photo over my my desk, taken while I had visited my daughter’s second grade class, taught by Penny Stephens Graham. All those young faces bent over their sheets of paper, working on their poems. That’s it, I thought. That’s MY topic.
To help us celebrate the beginning of National Poetry Month, and the good work that our arts organizations and our public schools do, let me share that response.
“Being North Carolina’s Poet Laureate for the past three years has given me plenty to love. What I’ve come to love most, however, are the students I’ve met in our schools, especially the ones in K-8. This love affair began in 1986, when I visited my daughter’s kindergarten class at what was then Camp Lab School in Cullowhee. We talked about pets and I jotted down their stories. I asked one little girl if her hound dog was spotted. No, she declared. ‘He’s all the way white.’ I was charmed by her response, the lilt of her voice. I was hooked.
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“In the years that followed I visited nearly every class in which my daughter sat, and quite a few others besides. Little did I know that I was rehearsing for my laureate role. Imagine an auditorium, chairs removed, at Iron Station Elementary School filled with K-2 students sitting cross-legged on the floor, chirping like birds, while I stood there, wondering how to begin! We talked about pets again (always a dependable subject), I read a poem or two, they asked some questions, and as they filed out, they wanted to touch the cowboy boots I was wearing and the laurel crown I had been given the day before at East Alexander Middle School. That’s where, after my reading in the gym, the students rushed me, wanting my autograph! And how can I ever forget the students at N. Canton Elementary, again sitting at my feet, one of whom, a little girl wearing sequined shoes, asked if she could grow up to be poet laureate. And how can I forget the enthusiastic fourth graders at Greenfield School and St. Therese’s in Wilson, eager to talk about haiku and Milky Way cake? What I love most about this state are these young faces looking back at me, ready to say who they are. May we all listen well to them.”
Now, eight years later, I wouldn’t change a word. And I wouldn’t change my closing plea to my readers. Our children’s future depends on the choices we make during these times when so much more seems to divide us than unify us. And yet I’d be willing to guess that when it comes to their future, we share more common ground than not.
We want them to have good, well-funded schools, and we want those schools to offer them not only the skills they need, but also to introduce them to the arts – music, painting, dancing, drama and poetry. These programs, like the Poet Laureate position I was honored to hold for nearly five years, deserve our support.
As one of my favorite singers has said, “The arts are a life raft in difficult times.” More than ever our young, and our not so young, need that raft when their personal lives encounter rough water. That picture waiting to be painted, that song, or poem, written and performed, can be a lifeline.
We must make sure that those lifelines aren’t taken away, or frayed so badly that they snap. Our children’s future depends on it. So, for that matter, does ours.
Kathryn Stripling Byer is a North Carolina Poet Laureate Emerita. She served as N.C. Poet Laureate from 2005 to 2009.