Among my wife’s family treasures is a vintage copy of “Evangeline,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem about star-crossed lovers separated during the persecution of the Acadians, ancestors of today’s Louisiana Cajuns.
My wife’s copy of “Evangeline” was originally a gift from her Aunt Pat to Pat’s father, Jim Seiley. Jim and Pat are long gone now, which is how the book came to us.
I hadn’t thought about “Evangeline” in quite some time. But last year, when a new biography of Longfellow by Nicholas Basbanes crossed my desk, the poem came back to mind.
“Cross of Snow,” Basbanes’ account of Longfellow’s life, mentions what a difference “Evangeline” made in the poet’s career when it was first published in 1847. Longfellow’s publisher stayed busy printing enough copies to satisfy demand. Readers were crazy about it.
It’s hard to believe anything like that would happen today. Most Americans don’t read much poetry these days, which is why this April, like every April in recent memory, has been designated National Poetry Month. If poetry were still popular, then writers wouldn’t feel the need for such awareness-raising.
Our copy of “Evangeline” entered my wife’s extended family in 1952, when Pat gave the book to her father for a Christmas present. Neither Pat nor James were stuffy. She was a schoolteacher, and he worked for the city. Reading was something they did for pleasure, and Pat apparently thought “Evangeline” could be a good read, too.
Poetry has become less popular since then because readers seldom think of it as something pleasurable. The sight of young Amanda Gorman smiling as she read her poems at this year’s presidential inauguration and the Super Bowl pointed to language as a lifting thing. Poetry can gladden hearts even when it touches on tough subjects.
During the lockdown last year, I enjoyed “Good Bones,” a book of poems by Maggie Smith. The title poem, in which a mother confesses how many of life’s hard realities she keeps from her children, has a sad theme, but like many readers, I felt grace after reading it. Like a great blues song, a poem can comfort even when it’s supposed to be about pain.
I thought about this again when someone sent me a copy of “100 Poems to Break Your Heart,” Edward Hirsch’s new anthology of work from poets old and new about grief. I sighed when the book landed on my doorstep. After such a hard year, did I really want to spend my evenings reading about loss? Even so, I liked Hirsch’s collection, though I wish it had instead been titled “100 Poems to Heal Your Heart.” In putting a name to their challenges, the poets in Hirsch’s book show how much better we are when words clarify what we see and feel.
I’m also reading, just for fun, “Buzz Words,” a funny collection of poems from various writers about bugs.
Somewhere, I suspect, dear Pat is smiling.