National Poetry Month
by Rhonna Hargett, Associate Director of Learning and Information Services
“Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” Rita Dove aptly described her art as she accepted the position of our nation’s Poet Laureate in 1993. As I read poetry collections, I find it striking how many forms of literature are represented in each book. In just a few pages, one skips through history, memoir, and romance. This makes poetry an effective way to explore the world through other perspectives. Poetry also has the unique ability to capture the ordinary and celebrate it.
In “How to Hang the Moon,” Huascar Medina, the Kansas Poet Laureate, writes about love, family, and, of course, Kansas. His poems take us from the fields of rural Kansas in “Per Aspera Ad Astra” to the streets of Kansas City in “Surrogate City,” exploring what it means to be a Kansan, even when one isn’t born here. Medina’s true gift, though, is his ability to capture the small moments in life with poems of streetlights, jazz, cicadas, and cats. His occasional incorporation of Spanish only adds to the exquisite rhythm of his writing.
Rita Dove is one of the most well-known American poets of our time, and her reputation is well-deserved. Throughout her 2021 book “Playlist for the Apocalypse”, we get an insider’s view into the perspective of a Black woman on many aspects of history and current events, such as the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which killed four young Black girls. She also draws from her time living in Venice, Italy to create a series of poems about the origins of the word “ghetto” with the Jews that were relocated in 1516 in Venice. Another series explores illness and pain, somehow managing to find grace in the midst of both. Dove is a creative writing professor at the University of Virginia, and her expertise shines through in her ability to switch between formats to find the best fit for each subject.
Our current U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo, visited K-State in the fall of 2020. Since she lives in nearby Tulsa, she regularly makes appearances in Kansas. As a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, she interprets the Trail of Tears in her 2019 collection “An American Sunrise.” Harjo’s book is a brilliant mixture of historical detail and the lingering effect of history on the lives of the descendants.
Another Poet Laureate (2004-2006) that hails from close to home is Ted Kooser, from Garland, Nebraska. Kooser’s trademark is his ability to capture the smallest moments, like an estate sale or coming across a frog on his porch, and find the beauty and human condition that lives within them. His folksy style and rural topics will be very familiar to Kansans, but he has a gift for noticing details that others pass by.
If you’ve wandered away from poetry and are interested in but tentative about returning to the genre, it might help to return to what you may have experienced in your high school English classes. The poetry of Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and William Wordsworth are still alive and well (and available at your public library). We even have a series called “Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets” with collections from some recognizable poets and selections on love and other popular poetry topics. If you prefer to listen, we have poetry available in both audio CD and digitally, with my favorite being “Voices of Poetry” on Hoopla, featuring poets such as Tolkein, cummings, and Hughes reading their own works.
April is National Poetry Month, and we are celebrating at Manhattan Public Library with our ReadMHK program. Join us by attending our book discussion on April 14th, listening to our ReadMHK podcast, or finding a new poet in our book lists, all available at www.mhklibrary.org.