a warm day in April, we play ball in T-shirts, get
out the bikes and in-line skates, and believe that
summer vacation is just around the corner. But the
next day, snow covers the playing fields, the sidewalks
are icy, and winter seems closer than summer will
is it about Aprilthis month that stirs us to
look forward, and then yanks us back into the harsh
chill of winter, that makes it a particularly appealing
subject for poets, as well as readers of poetry? Poet
T.S. Eliot wrote "April is the cruellest month," and
many seem to agree. What is so intriguing about April?
it is no coincidence that April is National
Poetry Month. We have selected four American poets
Whitman, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and
have written about April. Though they differ in tone
and mood, style, and focus, they share a theme
that seems to come from a heightened tension of opposing
natural forces; something that is particularly noticeable
in this month of awakenings and climactic extremes.
Helen Vendler, a renowned scholar of poetry, offers
some very good advice about reading poetry in her
book, Poems, Poets and Poetry:
come across a new poem, look at the way it displays
itself on the page. Is it a skinny poem or a wide
poem? A short poem or a long one? Are all the lines
the same length, or are some shorter than others?
Does it rhyme? Does it have stanzas?
the look of the poem as its body. Is it a symmetrical
body or a ragged body? A solid-looking body or an
As you read
it aloud and listen to its rhythms, feel what it is
telling you. Is it serious or even ponderous? Or does
it move with a lilt and a skip? Does it change its
manner of walking from indolent to hurried? Does it
manifest leisure or anxiety in its rhythms?
Do the formal
features of the poem align with the sentiments and
emotions it expresses? It is always worthwhile to
pay attention to the technical work the poet has done
on the external form of the poem; it is, after all,
the body the poet has chosen to live in for a determined
Stirs the Poetic Imagination
In northern climates, April is often known as the
beginning of the "mud season." Robert Frost,
often referred to as America's favorite poet, was
inspired by the particularities of seasonal change
on his New Hampshire farm. In his poem, "Two Tramps
in Mud Time" he wrote:
sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of
this sound familiar? If you live in a similar
climate, perhaps you recognize the crazy, unpredictable
weather Frost describes.
else do you notice about the poem? Is there a
rhyming pattern? How would you describe it?
the poem out loud (the only way to read a poem).
Does your voice flow in a rhythmic manner? Is
there a tone, or an attitude you can attribute
to the voice of the poet?
would you identify Frost's tone? (Check
as many as apply.)
not the entire poem. The featured stanza is
one of nine, and each one has exactly eight lines
and follows the same rhyme scheme. Although
there is a definite, formal structure in the
poem, Frost's manner is rather casual. Which words
or phrases contribute to this feeling? To whom is
the poet speaking?
Frost (1874-1963) was best known for his
use of colloquial language, familiar rhythms,
and symbols taken from common life. He was
an ardent naturalist. Though he was born in
San Francisco and died in Boston, he is most
remembered for his acute observations of the
details of rural New England life, and for
his casual, conversational style written in
a carefully constructed form.
Whitman's poem, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard
Bloom'd," carries images of beauty in early spring,
symbolized by lilacs, that contrast starkly with the
subject of this famous 16-stanza poem. He introduces
his theme in the first stanza:
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd in the western
sky in the night,
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star
in the west,
And thought of him I love.
often uses repetition to emphasize a point.
Can you guess at what he means by 'the great star'?
Whitman was writing an elegy to the recently assassinated
President Lincoln. In this expansive, 16-stanza poem,
Whitman hints at the vision of the train carrying
Lincoln's body across the country from Washington
to his home in Illinois, passing mourners, as well
as signs of early spring all along the route.
is also known for his revolutionary use of free
verse, which freed him from the constraints
of conventional poetry. How does the rhythm
and the structure of these lines differ
from Frost's poem?
Whitman (1819-1892) was a
journalist, essayist, and poet
whose style of writing revolutionized
American literature. The time
he spent walking and observing
people in New York City and Long
Island became the inspiration
for his celebration of what it
is to be American. In his famous
collection, Leaves of Grass,
he urged U.S. citizens, whom he
referred to as a "new race of
races nurtured in political liberty,"
to be large and generous in spirit.
The grand excitement of his poetry
was somewhat altered after the
Civil War (during which he cared
for both Union and Confederate
soldiers) and the death of his
beloved president, Abraham Lincoln.
was one of the inventors of
free verse--a style of poetry
that doesn't rhyme in any
regular way, and which uses
varying line widths. Whitman
saw it as a primitive form,
enjoying the freedom from
conventional rhyme and rhythm
he was schooled in. Though
it does appear to leave more
to chance, the line breaks
are very consciously chosen.
St. Vincent Millay brings an unusual attitude
(or tone) to her poem, "Spring." Read it aloud twice
before responding to the questions.
what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redress
of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The Sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs,
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing
do you think is speaking in this poem, and to
whom? If you were saying these words, how would
they sound? (Check as many as apply.)
at the line lengths and where the words break.
Reread the first two lines. How does this set
up help you to consider the speaker's tone?
St. Vincent Millay was born
in 1892 in Rockland, Maine. After
college, she lived in Greenwich
Village, New York, and Provincetown,
Massachusetts, where she was an
actress and playwright. She received
the Pulitzer prize in 1924. Her
traditionally romantic style often
contained unconventional and,
for her time, shocking ideas.
(Most of her writing was published
between 1920 and 1942). She died
Oliver wrote "Blossom" with deliberate incremental
indentations. How does this concrete set up of the
lines on the page, or the form, help us to
picture the images? Is there a pattern? Any repetition?
How is this poem similar to, and different from the
other poems? Think about theme, tone, and form.
to employing a concrete form to emphasize her ideas,
Oliver also presents startling contrasts. Are there
words that seem at first to be out of place? For the
most part she has chosen simple words. Yet there is
power in the imagery. How does the poet achieve this?
Oliver was born in 1935 in
Cleveland, Ohio, and now lives
in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
At one time she was a secretary
for Edna St. Vincent Millay's
sister, and there is some evidence
of Millay's influence in Oliver's
early poetry. Her writing has
few human subjects, but she draws
us into her humanity through her
acute focus on nature and her
precision with language. Oliver
won a Pulitzer Prize for her volume,
American Primitive (1983),
from which "Blossom" was taken.
She is Catharine Osgood Foster
Professor at Bennington College.
and discussing poems is more meaningful when you understand
the following poetry-related terms:
the external pattern, or shape, of a poem, without
reference to its content
verse: poetry in which the words are arranged
in lines, and may be more or less rhythmical,
but which have no fixed metrical pattern
regularized rhythm: arrangement of words in which
the accents occur at fairly equal intervals
the repetition of words, phrases or ideas
scheme (also rime scheme): any fixed pattern
of rhymes in a whole poem or its stanzas
any wavelike recurrence of sound or motion
group of lines whose metrical pattern (and usually
its rime scheme as well) is repeated throughout
the internal organization of a poem's content
the central idea
the writer's attitude toward his/her subject,
audience, or self; the emotional meaning