When special milestones roll around, Christine Wilson sits down to write poetry. She selects paper that's themed for the occasion, frames her creations, then wraps them for gifting.
"It's not just a card with a line in it," said Wilson, who teaches at Atlantic Cape Community College and lives down the Shore. "It's much more personal."
Bunnie Bryant, a retired educator from West Chester, sends Emily Dickinson poems to loved ones in emails and letters.
Sister Marge Clifford, who works at the Vincentian Family Office in Germantown, remembers that back on the family farm in Valparaiso, Ind., her mother would recite verses "with beautiful elocution and hand movements and intonation," inspiring Clifford to memorize "My Shadow" by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Evan Meyer recalls the crayon markings and dog-eared pages in a literary anthology his family shared back in Ohio. The retired lawyer who lives in Mount Airy calls Joyce Kilmer's "Trees" the "classic bad poem." And yet its message that all that surrounds us was created by God still gets him every time.
In celebration of National Poetry Month, the Inquirer and Daily News asked readers about poems they had shared among loved ones and through the generations. In a family, poems can kindle nostalgia for the way things were and contain identity and heritage within the stanzas. Some readers recalled trading verse with blood relatives, as well as with people who might as well be.
Maxwell Parrish looks at his best friend's daughter, Penny, that way. He made her a custom zine for her 13th birthday, selecting poems that mattered to him and poems he figured she'd like. With each one, he included an essay expanding on its meaning.
"Part of me realized she might never read it or might think it's hokey," said Parrish, a West Philadelphia writer and nurse practitioner, "but it felt like a good age to share that with her."
Steve Zeitlin, a folklorist, took on the topic of family verse in his book, The Poetry of Everyday Life. In it, he explains how his parents left Philadelphia for São Paulo, Brazil, rearing their children with an insular accent that was part Philly, part Yiddish. There is poetry, Zeitlin argues, in lyrical references made in conversation, in hand clap games played with siblings, in the cadences of a mother mimicking a baby's babble.
Zeitlin said in an interview that high times for family poetry come during rites of passage, but that the poetics of family intimacy can be seen all around.
"When people talk about love and how people get close to each other, they develop their own language," he said. "And their language becomes compressed like poetry does." With loved ones, people can develop a shorthand, free of the labor of clarifying every detail. Relatives can flip the meanings of words and reclaim jabs affectionately without having to explain why — communities do this too, Zeitlin said.
"The more loving a relationship is," he argued, "the more poetry you find in the language."
"We all know music can capture all kinds of emotions, deep emotions you didn't even know were there, but words can sometimes really crystallize emotions in that same way," Bey explained.
Olujimi agreed, "The words that might go with the music or might not are what's going to give it the texture and the confirmation."
For Hakim Bellamy, literature functions a little bit like travel. Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet was the first book that he read that would transport him.
His mother had given him the book when he was maybe 10, after the family had moved from North Philly to Sicklerville, N.J. But he didn't pay the book much mind until years later, while returning home during a college break. He would pursue poetry himself after moving to Albuquerque, serving as the city's inaugural poet laureate from 2012 to 2014.
Having a 10-year-old of his own now, he understands his mother's gift more deeply. Perhaps, he continued, she dug the book when she was young. And maybe she thought it could help make him a better person.
Olujimi has authored her own poetry, but is selective about what she shares with her children. "I write sporadically now," she said. "Back then, what I would share would be something about the human condition that I would want them to be aware of. Because being a human being can sometimes be fragile. And I would just want them to know that it's OK to be human."
Poetry can communicate legacies, but Philadelphia's poet laureate, Raquel Salas Rivera, is careful to note that these don't solely pass from forebears to children.
"Maybe the nuclear family isn't there as much," Salas Rivera said. The poetry could pass through communities; the storytelling could hinge on the choices people make as "we narrate our lives and think of connectivity."
There's legacy building, the poet offered, in a life developing and in a life lived.