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National Poetry Month: Why poetry needs warning labels

As National Poetry Month concludes, we should remind readers how powerful poems can be, how transforming, and yet, ultimately, how difficult to contain once they’ve left the page to linger in the mind.

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In this spring as in recent others, April has meant another observance of National Poetry Month, an awareness-raising exercise that, as the literary lobby puts it, is aimed at “increasing the visibility and availability of poetry in popular culture.”

Few would argue with such well-meaning promotion of cultural enlightenment, yet I wonder:

Can poetry, an art form nearly as old as humanity itself, be bad for your health?

The thought has come to mind these past few days as I commute to work with “Many Miles,” a new recording of Mary Oliver’s poetry, in the CD player. Physically, at least, I’m navigating red lights and stop signs, but my mind, entranced by the peculiar potion of rhythm and recitation, is off with Ms. Oliver in the woods and fields of New England, gazing at sunrises and shimmering ponds.

If texting behind the wheel is an enemy of road safety, I ask myself as I return from daydream to deal with the bumper ahead of me, then what about driving under the influence of verse?

This isn’t the first time I’ve grappled with the hypnotic effects of poetry read aloud. When my third-grade teacher placed a recording of Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on A Snowy Evening” on the LP record player, I quickly accepted Frost’s invitation to watch the woods fill up with snow.

I didn’t leave the woods until well after my classmates had shut their English primers and started their math lessons. While everyone else was scratching out long division, I was still entranced by meter and rhyme, still planted within a winter landscape described by Frost as “lovely, dark and deep.”


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