In 1996, the Academy of American Poets, inspired by Black History Month and Women’s History Month, celebrated in February and March respectively, established April as National Poetry Month. President Clinton issued an official proclamation, declaring that National Poetry Month “offers us a welcome opportunity to celebrate not only the unsurpassed body of literature produced by our poets in the past, but also the vitality and diversity of voices reflected in the works of today’s American poetry.” National Poetry Month highlights the legacy and achievements of American poets, encourages reading, writing and publishing poetry.
The first poem was the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” a twelve tablet long epic that chronicles Gilgamesh’s search for immortality. The poem first started out as a series dating to around 2100 B.C., with the most complete version written by the Babylonians around 12th century B.C. The poem was lost around 600 B.C. until it was found in the mid-nineteenth century.
The first poems in the United States were songs used by Native Americans for various occasions such as initiations, healing ceremonies, or hunting rituals, as well as passing down tribal history and culture. The songs were chanted or sung rhythmically accompanied by drums or other instruments.
In 1912, Harriet Monroe founded the magazine Poetry in Chicago, the oldest monthly poetry magazine in the English-speaking world. Monroe established the magazine after seeing how the Art Institute and Orchestra Hall celebrated various art forms and wanted to do the same for poetry, and provide a way for poets to be paid for their work. Poetry was where T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg and others published their first poems.
Esther Belin (Born: July 2, 1968) is a Diné (Navajo) multi-media artist and writer. Belin’s parents were part of the Special Navajo Five-Year Program, which operated from 1946-1961 at the Sherman Institute in Riverside California and were relocated in the 1950s from the Southwest to Los Angeles where Belin grew up. Her poems address the relocation and attempts to assimilate Native Americans into American culture, as well as issues of racism, alienation and substance abuse.
Belin graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts and the University of California, Berkeley. Her first poetry collection, From the Belly of My Beauty (1999) won the American Book Award in 2000.
In an interview with the Studies in American Indian Literature (SAIL) that same year, Belin emphasized the connection between oral tradition and writing, explaining that she saw herself as “an interpreter of what happened in my parents’ generation,” and that she sees her books “as an anthropological text—telling what it’s like for Native people.” Her most recent publication was Of Cartography released in September 2017 from University of Arizona Press.
Anne Dudley Bradstreet (March 20, 1612–September 16, 1672) was the first female poet published in England and the American colonies.
Dudley was the daughter of Thomas Dudley, steward to the Earl of Lincoln in Sempringham from 1619 to 1630, and grew up on his estate where the library contained Virgil, Plutarch, Spenser, Sidney, Milton, Raleigh, and numerous other works.
Around 1628, Dudley married Simon Bradstreet, who assisted her father in managing the estate. In 1630, she, her husband and son Simon, as well as her father and the rest of her family sailed on the Arbella to the American colonies. They arrived in Salem, Massachusetts. The living conditions were primitive, a stark contrast to the luxury she had experienced in England. Over the next twenty years, Bradstreet had eight children and cared for her family as it moved around Massachusetts to improve their living conditions.
Her first poem, written when she was nineteen was, “Upon a Fit of Sickness, Anno. 1632,” and written in Newtown. It outlined traditional Puritan concerns about the brevity of life, certainty of death, and the hope for salvation. From 1635 to 1645, while living in Ipswich, Bradstreet wrote most of the poems that would be included in the first edition of The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America was published in London in 1650. Eight years later, William London listed it in his Catalog of the Most Vendible Books in England and George III reportedly had a copy in his library. The first American edition of her work, an expanded edition, re-titled Several Poems Compiled with Great Wit and Learning was published posthumously. Though her early work was “largely unremarkable,” her later work, a series of religious poems entitled Contemplation “won critical acceptance” when it was published in the middle of the twentieth century.
Lizette Woodworth Reese (1856–1935) was born in Huntington (now Waverly), Maryland to a father David Reese, who would fight in the Confederate army and become a prisoner of war during the Civil War, and a German mother, Louisa Gabler. After graduating from high school, she spent almost the next fifty years teaching English in Baltimore school. Her first poetry collection, A Branch of May was published in 1887 and received “wide recognition.” She went on to publish eight more volumes of poetry, two narrative poems, two memoirs, and an autobiography. Reese mixed colloquial speech and formal structure influenced others, such as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Louise Bogan.
Reese co-founded the Women’s Literary Club of Baltimore and acted as poetry chair from 1890 until she died. In 1931, she was named poet laureate of Maryland and granted an honorary doctorate from Goucher College. Reese was also a member of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, acting as honorary president from 1922 until she died. She was awarded a degree of doctor of literature from Goucher College in 1931. In 1931, and won the Mary L. Keats Memorial Prize for contributions to literature.
After her mother died, Reese spent the last twenty years of her life living with her sister’s family. She died at the Church Home and Infirmary as Edgar Allan Poe had ninety years earlier. Reese was buried at St. John’s in the Village Church in Baltimore, Maryland. Her papers are collected at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore.