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Poetry Month, Reader’s Den

Sparrows and Heroes, or Why Poetry?


After the winter we've had, I've been really looking forward to April. With the longer daylight hours, signs of green, and chances to enjoy the city's parks and rivers without shivering, I feel something in my brain waking up and it seems natural to break out the poetry.

Below Niagara in winter. [Icicles.] Image ID: G91F070_061F

We'll be sharing poems with you every week here on the Readers' Den in celebration. I thought I'd introduce our month-long focus with two very different, very striking poems about the nature of poetry itself.

Since we're taking on the rather broad issue of what is poetry, and, really, why we need it, I wanted to highlight poets who approach this task from opposite directions. One poem is super-short, trilling in the brain and on the tongue. I like to think it not only answers it with a metaphor, but also by example. (This is a fun one for memorizing, if you're into that like I am). The second one sinks in slowly and ends with a gut punch that burns for a while. Skip to the links if you want to approach them fresh.

Flame Breasted Robin. Image ID: 1131811Written by native New Yorker, Poet Laureate, and much-awarded Howard Nemerov, "Because You Asked About the Line Between Prose and Poetry" is a six-lines-long scene shot with a sense of internal rhymes, alliteration, consonance, assonance, and probably more; it's the well-packed small package of good things.

"What He Thought" is written by Heather McHugh, another much-awarded poet, who spends pages giving us background into the story of her trip to "a job in Italy" during which an unexpected source said something that made a big impression. Lulled by her prosody into the mundane judgments and academic discourse of the scene, and I was thunderstruck by it too.

You can find the full text of both poems at the links below, as well as in books in the NYPL collection. The website I'm using,, is a great free source for published poems, mini biographies of poets, audiotracks of readings, lists of poet-related landmarks, poetry-related events, interviews, and videos. Enjoy.

"Because you asked about the line between prose and poetry," by Howard Nemerov.

"What he thought," by Heather McHugh. You can even hear her read it aloud on that page. This poem can also be found in Poetry 180, an anthology edited by Billy Collins.

What do you think? Which poem strikes you? Do they get it right? Share your comments below.


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