It was inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in April 1996. That same spring, just before I graduated from Sweet Briar College in Virginia, I learned I had won a college competition sponsored by the Academy for a villanelle I had written in Mary Oliver’s metrical poetry workshop the previous spring. The villanelle was called The Dogwood. It was inspired by the unpredictable springtime in lovely Virginia, and the flower-bearing tree, a beloved emblem of the Old Dominion. And, it was about my faith, celebrating Easter in its assuring renewal.
My degree was in Creative Writing, so I kept all of the work I turned in. I was in awe of Ms. Oliver and kept everything she returned to me, as if each comment in her signature pencil was a personalized autograph or a relic. I cherrished it all. It’s humbling to see the evolution of my work – and I credit it all to Ms. Oliver. I knew absolutely nothing about writing poems until I wandered into her workshop at Sweet Briar. I thought I was a crafty poet. But I was soon stripped down from that hubristic notion and I slowly learned to be quiet, to pay attention and to listen.
Ms. Oliver’s comments are sacred to me. It would be sacreligious for me to share them in this blog, or in any print. But, I will share this. When she graded my final work for her advanced poetry workshop, she wrote, in pencil, on my paper: “I like the way you’re weaning yourself from obvious rhyme. You have a lot to say — just let it come out.” That was priceless advice. She wrote many helpful things that still inspire me to stay the path. And, it is not an easy one, the path of the poet. Most young poets cannot make a living writing metrical or blank verse musings. Most are lucky if they even get published in what are relatively unknown literary journals. There’s not exactly a huge audience for poetry today. But, I am optimistic that that’s changing.
In celebration of National Poetry Month, I have decided to send a poem each week to a couple of my friends. It started when we were emailing about my friend’s ex who had never read The Catcher in the Rye. The three of us were baffled. It reminded me of the year I read the book. I was in Mrs. Moriarity’s GT English class at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, Virginia. I loved that book. I loved that class. I loved Mrs. Moriarity. That same year, I was asked to read Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem, The Chambered Nautilus, in front of the class. It was electric for me. I felt poetry for the first time. I soon became an adoring mistress of Frost, Tennyson, Whitman, and an adoring companion of Millay, Dickinson, Bishop. So, delighted in the memory, I sent my two friends an email with Holmes’ haunting poem. I promised to send a poem each week. Today, I sent them two poems! Optimism and Pyracantha & Plum by Jane Hirshfield.
It is springtime, after all. Optimism and fruit bearing trees tickle the mind with wistful delight as sun breaks melt through the northwest rain, clearing low fog, reminding us it’s time to begin anew, to be fruitful, to labor and to be grateful.