“Necessary Gardens” from
Please Bury Me in the Library
written by J. Patrick Lewis
illustrated by Kyle M. Stone
Harcourt, Inc./Gulliver Books, 2005
A language’s function is to make communication possible. But that’s only its practical function. We’d all be reduced to automatons if practicality was our sole reason for using language. And while lots of what we communicate is non-verbal, say eye-rolls, applause, all those angsty teenage facial expressions we all (well, mostly all) have outgrown, what we say really does matter. And like my mom always reminded me, how we say what we say is even more important.
Sarcasm was something she often called to my attention. “Watch your tone, young lady” was usually accompanied with a disapproving non-verbal facial gesture. She meant my tone of voice, the meaning behind my words. Not all of that meaning is poetry, in the strictest sense, but some of it could be.
I liked poetry when I was young. I read famous poets. Robert Frost was (still is) one of my favorites. I have a large collection of his work in my own handwriting on lined notebook paper in a time-worn three-ring binder. And while I loved Paul Simon’s lyrics, Art Garfunkel stole my heart. I can still sing most of their hits. Lots of what Paul Simon wrote was poetry. His language holds an electric charge of meaning; it says more, much more than the dictionary definitions of his words.
Understanding for the first time that written words, like spoken words, could be charged with multiple meaning was what encouraged me to write my own poetry. Most of my attempts were badly executed expressions of how hard it was for me to be a teenager. The pull to maintain the relative safety of my childhood was matched by the need to make my own decisions. I followed rules set for me by others with great resentment. And even less understanding. The bad poetry I wrote was helpful, if only a little.
Convinced poetry is an art, not really a craft, I didn’t study it. I didn’t know how it worked until an excellent English professor in a poetry-writing class I finally took showed me how poetry makes words more powerful. I learned a lot about the technical aspects of poetry. And then practice and more practice. Metaphor, of course flew to its pinnacle of prominence. Line breaks showed me their ability to emphasize. Cadence and rhythm waltzed and rhumba-ed. And I tried my hand at list-making.
Like practicing anything you like, it feels fun, not at all like work.
I also learned about poetry’s art. The importance and effectiveness of expressing emotion by choosing the precise and necessary word; when short lines make sense to a reader (and myself as the first reader) or if long lines make more sense; how to evoke a scent or sound. These are all practical aspects that can be taught and learned.
Practice is the only way to make the craft shine and tune its artful ear. And some people get really good. Who doesn’t remember Amanda Gorman’s inaugural speech? Her words soared. Her delivery thrust them into a gorgeous dance of excitement, hope, and encouragement.
Youth Poet Laureates are named through a submission process and judged by a panel of leaders of national literary and arts organizations. Through the program begun in 2017, the Youth Poet Laureate is a young activist who uses poetry to encourage others to work for social change.
The official title of the Poet Laureate of the United States, though, is “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.” Before 1986, people who held the position were referred to as “Consultants in Poetry.” Originally, Consultants served as aides to the Library of Congress. They evaluated the Library’s collection and made recommendations.
An act of Congress in 1986 added the title “Poet Laureate” and defined the duties to include organizing local poetry readings, lectures, conferences, and outreach programs. The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, acts as an ambassador bringing poetry to the people.
Our current Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry is Ada Límon whose appointment was announced in July, 2022, by Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress. She said of Ms. Límon’s work, “Her accessible, engaging poems ground us in where we are and who we share our world with. They speak of intimate truths, of the beauty and heartbreak that is living, in ways that help us move forward.”
Ms. Límon said of her own work, “I have been witness to poetry's immense power to reconnect us to the world, to allow us to heal, to love, to grieve, to remind us of the full spectrum of human emotion.”
Specific duties of the Poet Laureate are kept to a minimum. A couple of years ago when Tracey K. Smith served in the position, she started a podcast called “Slowdown.” Ada Límon is the current host, but will relinquish that position at the end of October. Find today’s broadcast (9/6/22) here.
When she opens the Library of Congress’s literary season reading her work in the Coolidge Auditorium, Ms. Límon begins her Laureateship. Her term will end in April.
She has been bringing poetry to the people, though, since she published her first work in 2006. Her most recent book of poetry is The Hurting Kind.
If you haven’t read poetry in a while, give Ada Límon’s work a try. If you’ve never read a book of poetry, now’s a good time to start!
-—be curious! (and keep a poem in your pocket)