Power in the poem

Apr 5, 2013 By Steven R. Peck

April is National Poetry Month, so consider a favorite verse --or find one

We have no illusions about the modest observance of National Poetry Month, for which April has been set aside since 1996. There isn't exactly a rush of nationwide fervor for poets and poetry just because it's April.

But the skill of the poet and the power of the poem are marvelous things when shown to their best advantage. We who write in forms other than poetry are able to hide behind verbiage, substituting length for acuity more often than we'd care to admit.

"Keep writing -- the story's got to be in there somewhere" is a one-line newspaper editor's joke (OK, maybe magazine editor's joke is more accurate).

The poet does the opposite. While there are some long-form poems, the ones that impact and endure tend to be the opposite type. The good poet in good form epitomizes what could be called a definition of art, that is, showing more with less.

If the novelist, to quote the fiction writer and teacher John Gardner, has the luxury from time to time of "throwing paint at the wall," the poet worked with a brush the size of a needle, dabbing just here and just there, finishing at the earliest possible moment, when one fewer word would leave things incomplete, and one extra would ruin them.

During National Poetry Month, appreciators of the form invite us all to recall a poem we like, find it, and read it again, perhaps say it aloud, and share it with another. Or, find a name you recognize and dip a toe into the poet's pool. Or pluck a book from a library shelf with "Poems" on the spine, and drink from it for a few minutes.

See what you make of it. Perhaps nothing, but, if you're lucky, perhaps something.

Following is a poem by A.E. Housman, an English poet whose life straddled the 19th and 20th centuries. Here, he writes of the urgency of life. The title is "Reveille."


Wake: the silver dusk returning

Up the beach of darkness brims,

And the ship of sunrise burning

Strands upon the eastern rims.

Wake: the vaulted shadow shatters,

Trampled to the floor it spanned,

And the tent of night in tatters

Straws the sky-pavilioned land.

Up, lad, up, 'tis late for lying:

Hear the drums of morning play;

Hark, the empty highways crying

`Who'll beyond the hills away?'

Towns and countries woo together,

Forelands beacon, belfries call;

Never lad that trod on leather

Lived to feast his heart with all.

Up, lad: thews that lie and cumber

Sunlit pallets never thrive;

Morns abed and daylight slumber

Were not meant for man alive.

Clay lies still, but blood's a rover;

Breath's a ware that will not keep.

Up, lad: when the journey's over

There'll be time enough to sleep.


That's one. There are millions of others. And there is one out there for you --and probably many more than that. National Poetry Month might be a good time to find out.

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