Since 1996, the Academy of American Poets have designated April as National Poetry Month as a way to increase awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. Since 1998, National Poetry Month has also been celebrated each April in Canada. Being a Canadian living in the United States, I have 2 reasons to celebrate it with a poem I wrote on the subject 17.5 years ago. I’d also like to share what inspired me to write it.
One morning, while recuperating from a cold in my room, I had been listening to the Diane Rehm Show. At the end she announced her guest for the next day, Bill Moyers, who would talk about his latest poetry project. I tuned in and recorded it on Tues, Oct 05, 1999, 10-11 a.m. ET.
In that episode of the show, Moyers discussed his upcoming PBS poetry special: Fooling with Words with Bill Moyers, the result of a visit to the Dodge Poetry Festival, which featured readings by US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky and other leading poets. He also mentioned his accompanying book, Fooling With Words: A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft (William Morrow). You can actually see Part One and Part Two of Fooling With Words, produced by and archived at Moyers & Company.
Moyers mentioned that television lends itself well to the human voice reading poetry. He said, “Poetry is music for the human voice,” but what really made an impression on him was watching “people listening to poetry.” His cameras focused in on both the poets reading their poems, and members of the audience listening attentively.
What Bill Moyers said about this dynamic caught my attention: “Poetry is reflected in the face of the listener, in the eyes, and in the intensity of the listener’s response. It’s like a mirror to the poet’s own face. And you watch these faces and you really see that poetry is sinking in, and meeting an audience in that individual listener.”
Diane and Bill then invited 3 poets on the show to read a poem and explain how they came to write it: Marge Piercy, Mark Strand (16:44), and Jane Hirshfield (32:57). After listening to the ideas and images expressed in the conversations and poems, I was so inspired that I wrote a poem about it called: Poetry—The Art of the Voice.
Poetry—The Art of the Voice
How fine will your breath become
from listening to these words?
How soft will they seem to be
as they settle through the mind
like silent snowflakes falling
from a windless winter sky?
I often marvel at the mystery—
how words can work
on a listener’s heart and mind,
upon hearing a poet’s thoughts,
a poet’s breath, flowing
from an inner voice—
a windless wind, speaking
through a voiceless voice.
© Ken Chawkin
Years later, when Freddy Fonseca put out a call for poems from Fairfield poets for This Enduring Gift-A Flowering of Fairfield Poetry (2010), I sent it in along with some other poems. At Freddy’s suggestion I changed one word, which caused me to refine it even more, taking it to the intended level. He published it, five haiku, and a tanka, and later selected it as POEM OF THE DAY: Poetry – The Art of the Voice, by Ken Chawkin.
Over the years, Bill Moyers has welcomed some of America’s best poets to share their works and inspiration. Many of those writers have performed at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, which Bill and his colleagues covered for television specials including Fooling with Words (1999), The Language of Life (1995) and Sounds of Poetry (1999). Enjoy Poets in Performance, a showcase of such poetry from past and recent productions from Moyers & Company, performed by the poets who dreamed them up, or by other artists who, like Bill, simply adore poetry.