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McCallum: Poetry Month

This spring, Caroline Kennedy's new book called Poems to Learn by Heart was published. A segment on the evening news showed her standing among excited middle school students who were being interviewed about Kennedy's volunteer work with them in appreciating and memorizing poetry. One declared that it had changed her life. Her enthusiasm brought me back to the year I ran a poetry class in Vermont's high security prison, which culminated with a reading in the facility's visiting room for inmates, special guests and the press.

It was moving to watch each man dressed in prison garb walk to the lectern to read his work. White pages of poems fluttered in shaking hands as they projected their voices across the room, just as we had practiced days before the event. Their words hung in the air and were heard by others, perhaps as their voices had never been listened to before. That day, they stood tall through the power of poetry.

Once seen as rarified territory occupied by writers, academics, lovers and intellectual eggheads, poetry has crept into our homes and sat down in the kitchen with us. Garrison Keillor reads a poem to us at breakfast or during our commute, a president invites a poet to memorialize his inauguration in the January cold as millions hang on every word, and high octane poetry slams bring fresh young voices to the table.

We have a United States poet laureate and individual ones in nearly every state in the union. One of them, Billy Collins, was called the most popular poet in America by the New York Times after he gained millions of followers by reading on public radio's Prairie Home Companion. Perhaps turning a poet into a literary celebrity in real time did more for the genre than centuries of book publishing ever could.

I am part of a circle of poetry appreciators that meets each month to share aloud lines that we love. In decidedly Vermont style, we gather in a yurt on the edge of a field that is blanketed with snow in winter and swales of green in summer. Inside, the words of Mary Oliver, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams and Walt Whitman mingle with those of unknowns whose work becomes an invitation into a new room. Poems about ordinary loneliness, laundry, lust and the art of killing chickens share space with the intricate constructions of Shakespeare and John Donne. One of us recites from memory, several have sung their poems, and the rest read in turn from books, magazines and creased internet printouts. Hours pass by, but we hardly notice because we are bobbing together on the sea of poetry.

April is National Poetry Month and might be the perfect time for each of us to choose just one poem to commit to memory. It can be shared with anyone, but once it's in your pocket, it will be yours and will keep you company for the rest of your life.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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