The Artful Lessons of National Poetry Month

I discovered the poetry of Robert Frost when I was assigned to recite from memory Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I was 10, and I didn’t understand much beyond the memorization. I was also assigned to memorize and recite the Gettysburg Address, and that speech from Shakespeare’s As You Like It (“All the world’s a stage…”). I was pressed to overcome debilitating stage fright during these exercises, and the most important thing to me at the time was to get through it.

I took many of these words forward into my life on a subconscious level, but the most oft arising has to be Frost’s final line of his poem, “…and I have promises to keep / and miles to go before I sleep.” Surfacing during dark times, Frost still reminds me that following through and fulfilling the promises you have extended—even the promise held to yourself to wake up and breathe, every day—fosters hope.

Having “miles to go before you sleep” reminds of the road that stretches ahead, and charting a definable course has a lot to do with the meaningful connections that are chosen along the way. Yes, I read that much into his words, and take to heart that the journey can be long. But I also understand that I have things to do, no matter the weight of my heart when it is weary.

Poetry has affected me throughout my life in this way. I owe it to my own morbid curiosity about what it means to feel human in this world, and how both difficult and joyous it can be to live in this human skin. Reading Yeats, Dickinson, Byron and Brontë remind us of what we long for. Reading Cummings and Angelou remind us of who we already are, and who we need to continue to try and be.

Over the past year or so, I found myself writing poetry as a coping mechanism. It was a way to process what I didn’t understand, or what I was struggling with. It came and went, like an exercise assigned by a therapist. In this case, the therapist was the Universe. The exercise, a manner in which to take back some sanity.

As it turns out, it simply acted as a reminder that this explorative territory serves as my home. I can seek out the lyricism of others or try to create my own song. The act of seeking is what matters. There are times in one’s life when solace can only be found in the form of art, and understanding can only be had when the question is pursued.

I have the great fortune to speak with artists on a regular basis, most of them practiced at visual delivery rather than written. I’ve fielded questions from artists who work in pastel, oil and watercolor about my own process. They too crave an understanding of the human condition and how it comes to be articulated through the written word. I’ve had a well-known, deeply respected artist say to me with humble frustration, “All I can do is paint.”

It can be said that the artist who lives in a growth mindset seeks out other forms of art to satisfy a longing to understand more, hoping that it shows on the canvas. I believe it can be said that the average person—the non-creative—should be seeking the same. Understanding can be shown in how we treat one another. The empathy we develop by connecting through poetry and art will carry us. The miles we have yet to traverse are endless.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.   
His house is in the village though;   
He will not see me stopping here   
To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

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