Poetry’s prominence in the 19th century meant that Longfellow’s fame was on the order of today’s biggest music and movie stars. His influence is still felt throughout popular culture, as depicted on this box of tea from 1995.
In Longfellow’s day poetry was more widely read, used more often as a teaching tool, and accessible to a broader swath of the public. Over time, and perhaps unfairly, poetry became more narrowly defined as an elite pursuit, the realm of academics, intellectuals, and artistes.
In 1996, the American Academy of Poets christened April “National Poetry Month” to celebrate poetry’s intrinsic value and vitality for all. Programs like the national recitation contest Poetry Out Loud have helped reinstate the practice of learning and sharing poems with audiences. Poetry slams made poetry cool again. Recent U.S. Poet Laureates like Billy Collins, whose plain-spoken language and contemporary themes have resonated with a wide range of readers (and sold a ton of books), have reminded people that poetry is truly for everyone.
To celebrate, why not brew up a pot of tea, pop open your favorite book of poetry, and start reading? (Out loud is optional.)