When I had my own classroom (I used to be a secondary school English teacher), one of my favourite wall displays was a ‘poem of the month’ board which held a rotating selection of verse. The rules were simple. Each poem had to contain the name of the relevant month within its lines. I had a huge amount of fun collecting the verses and you may have noticed a few of them appearing on this blog, especially for the easy favourites such as ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner‘ (June) and ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad‘ (April). Some months were harder than others, I recall November, despite being a popular title, appears very rarely within the poems themselves. Oddly, March was also a tough month to fill. It took a fair amount of internet trawling, but I did finally end up with something rather special:
We like March – his shoes are purple.
He is new and high –
Makes he mud for dog and peddler –
Makes he forest dry –
Knows the adder’s tongue his coming,
And begets her spot –
Stands the sun so close and mighty –
That our minds are hot.
News is he of all the others –
Bold it were to die
With the Blue Birds buccaneering
On his British sky –
We didn’t teach that much American verse, so I was delighted to give my students at least a fleeting view of some of the nation’s greatest poets (Poe also got his allocated slot, because it wouldn’t be December without an extract from ‘The Raven‘). I also think that Dickinson captures the transitional month of March beautifully, though, as with so many of her works, she raises as many questions as she answers.
The first thing to remember, as I told myself most mornings when I faced the poem on entering my classroom, is that this isn’t a monologue and doesn’t tell a story. Instead, it evokes an emotion, and so is an example of lyric rather than narrative verse. This means that questions like ‘Who are the ‘we’ at the start?’ and ‘What’s going on with the genders of March and the adder’s tongue?’ are tempting but unsatisfying. Instead, I’d try to empty my mind and focus on the (literally) marching rhythm and succession of evocative images.
The images themselves are forceful and enigmatic. There is March with his purple shoes, giving a regal and ecclesiastical tone to the natural wonders of the month. Then we’re brought sharply down to earth with the ‘mud’ that follows in his wake. These first images set up the tension between the highs of beauty and the depths of wallowing that will be the focus of the rest of the poem. The human experience of change lies between the snake and the sun, the dog and the birds. Similarly the collective response to the pride of the month can be a human’s own, over-heated ambition to be truly, if misplacedly, ‘bold.’ It’s a very powerful poem.
As for the last lines, I did wonder about displaying them so prominently to class after class of adolescent girls. I comforted myself with the knowledge that only so many were going to read my desperately educational displays anyway. More importantly, a bit of poetic angst is surely an essential component of anyone’s teenage years. Emily Dickinson died of Bright’s disease at the age of 55, but she does fall into the honourable tradition of depressed, death-obsessed artists. If anyone can show aspiring writers how to turn morbid thoughts into enduring poetry, she can.
If you have any other top March poems, please suggest them. I know that Dickinson is hard to beat, but it’s a wonderful month and a wonderful time of year. There must be other verse responses out there, and I’d love to increase my poem of the month collection!