For poetry lovers, April is very special – it’s National Poetry Month. It was introduced in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets as a way to increase awareness and appreciation of poets and poetry in the United States.
While National Poetry Month is usually celebrated with activities, programs, and events around the country, many of these have had to be called off or postponed due to the COVID-19 crisis. Poetry is always an important part of the Ohioana Book Festival. The 2020 festival, initially planned for April, is now rescheduled for August 29, at the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Main Library. A number of poets will take part both in the main event and in outreach activities leading up to it.
Ohio is, and has been, the home of many outstanding poets, and the Ohioana Library has been collecting, preserving, and celebrating their works since we were founded in 1929. Kenneth Patchen became the first poet to receive an Ohioana Book Award, when his collection Cloth of the Tempest was honored in 1944. At first given periodically, the poetry book award has been presented annually since 1989.
Among the noted poets who have been honored with Ohioana Awards are James Wright, Mary Oliver, Michael J. Rosen, David Citino, Thylias Moss, David Baker, Kathy Fagan, George Bilgere, Martha Collins, Jacqueline Woodson, and J. Patrick Lewis. Rita Dove holds the record for the most Ohioana Book Awards in poetry with four.
Many Ohio poets have achieved national acclaim. Dove became the first African American to become the U.S. Poet Laureate. She has also won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Mary Oliver won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. In 2007, the New York Times said that Oliver was “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.” Woodson won a National Book Award, and both she and J. Patrick Lewis have served as U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate.
Among the notable young Ohio poets who have garnered national attention in recent years are Maggie Smith, Kazim Ali, Teri Ellen Cross Davis, Hanif Abdurraqib, Ruth Awad, Scott Woods, Rachel Wiley, and Marcus Jackson. In 2016, the Ohio General Assembly created the post of Ohio Poet Laureate. Governor Kasich appointed Amit Majmudar as the first poet to hold that post, followed two years later by Dave Lucas, who won the 2012 Ohioana Poetry Book Award. Ohio’s third Poet Laureate is to be named this year by Governor Mike DeWine.
No Ohio poet is more celebrated than Dayton’s Paul Laurence Dunbar. Although he only lived to the age of 33, Dunbar’s poems influenced generations of African American poets, including Cleveland’s Langston Hughes. Dunbar’s line “I know why the caged bird sings” became famous as the title of author Maya Angelou’s autobiography. In 1936, the Ohio General Assembly made Dunbar’s home in Dayton the first state memorial dedicated to an African American. Several early editions of Dunbar’s books are among the treasures of Ohioana’s s collection. You can learn more about Dunbar from our Winter 2018 Ohioana Quarterly: www.ohioana.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/OQ-Winter-2018-lr.pdf
While most of the public events that normally mark National Poetry Month have unfortunately been cancelled this year, the Academy of American Poets has come up with some great ideas on how we can all celebrate the magic and wonder of poetry right in our own homes during this challenging time. Be sure to check them out here: https://poets.org/national-poetry-month
So while the weather at this particular moment isn’t very spring-y, we thought we’d close this ode to National Poetry Month with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Spring Song”, looking forward to a happier, healthier time for all:
A blue–bell springs upon the ledge,
A lark sits singing in the hedge;
Sweet perfumes scent the balmy air,
And life is brimming everywhere.
What lark and breeze and bluebird sing,
Is Spring, Spring, Spring!
No more the air is sharp and cold;
The planter wends across the wold,
And, glad, beneath the shining sky
We wander forth, my love and I.
And ever in our hearts doth ring
This song of Spring, Spring!
For life is life and love is love,
‘Twixt maid and man or dove and dove.
Life may be short, life may be long,
But love will come, and to its song
Shall this refrain for ever cling
Of Spring, Spring, Spring!