Yesterday, I think it was, or maybe the day before, I saw a reference to National Poetry Month and went, “Oh yeah, that’s right. Nuts!” That’s how it is every year. If I’d only remembered, I could have arranged a reading at some local venue, but it’s too late now. I mean, I suppose I still could do a last minute thing, run off a bunch of flyers, send out an all-points bulletin via e-mail – you know – but, well, my calendar’s already pretty full, and I’m betting yours is too, right? I mean, it’s April – not necessarily the cruelest but possibly the most hectic month for meetings, conferences, banquets, weddings, gardening, spring birding, spring wildflower walks, invasive species removals, trash cleanup day, trout season opener, Little League… you name it, it’s happening. And then, whoops, here’s National Poetry Month, strategically announced – if this year is like all previous years – with a full-page ad from the Academy of American Poets in the inside back cover of American Poetry Review. I’m looking at last year’s ad (a friend passes on APR, so I read it one year late) and I am marveling anew at the sheer lack of imagination on display. Ooh, let’s all get together and list our names as co-sponsors! What exactly are we sponsoring, other than this full-page ad? Who the hell knows! But isn’t it nifty how the size of the type diminishes the farther down the page you go, the less money you give? Oh, to be in the Chairman’s Circle, now that spring is here! Western wind, when wilt thou blow, the small names down can name…
Oh, but wait – there’s a web address. Maybe everything’s explained online. Let’s see. Front and center is a spooky calendar, with empty dresses marking dates for the National Poetry Month: 10 Years/10 Cities reading series. Below that, in order, I find links to a poem-a-day e-mail thing; a listing of new spring books; a poetry book club; a National Poetry Month poster gallery; and “Poetry and the Creative Mind, the Academy’s Annual Benefit,” which was held on April 5 in New York City. The blue sidebar, which is headed “Get Involved,” in descending order includes: Join the Academy; Save the Date! (April 21 is Poem in Your Pocket Day – another NYC event); Adopt-a-Poet (they make wonderful pets!); New on DVD (John Ashbery, Louise Glück, Anthony Hecht, and W.S. Merwin. One word: yowza); Look for Poetry Month Events in Your Area (I did. There weren’t any. Though that’s as much my fault as anyone’s); Sale! $10 – Purchase the official National Poetry Month T-Shirt today. (“Official?”)
I click on the link to the T-shirt, and find it features a moderately funny New Yorker cartoon. Wear this official T-shirt and people will know that, while you may like poetry, you’re sophisticated enough to be humorously self-deprecating about it. Which, come to think of it, seems to be the point of the strange calendar with the empty dresses and the classically agoraphobic quote by Dickinson (“Nature is a haunted house – but Art – a house that tries to be haunted”). The Academy may at one time have been about Art with a capital A, but now, they want you to know, they’re all about “Art.” If you’re as hip as they are, you’ll recognize the ghostly, invisible quotes. No unseemly enthusiasm, please! Rumi and Neruda are dead. (Over at Slate magazine, they’re celebrating the month with “Poems Against Poetry.” That is so hip.)
I’m a little troubled by the implication that National Poetry Month is a wholly owned, corporate-sponsored subsidiary of the Academy. Let’s see if Google bears that out. Hmm, well they certainly don’t have much competition for the top slot. Infoplease has an informative web guide to poets and poetics, but the swarm of pop-ups doesn’t tempt me to explore further. Next down is a guide to NPM-related materials and events for school kids, from Scholastic. The fourth result is Charles Bernstein’s dyspeptic take on National Poetry Month, which I usually end up chuckling over every year around this time.
As part of the spring ritual of National Poetry Month, poets are symbolically dragged into the public square in order to be humiliated with the claim that their product has not achieved sufficient market penetration and must be revived by the Artificial Resuscitation Foundation (ARF) lest the art form collapse from its own incompetence, irrelevance, and as a result of the general disinterest among the broad masses of the American People.
The motto of ARF’s National Poetry Month is: “Poetry’s not so bad, really.”
National Poetry Month is sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, an organization that uses its mainstream status to exclude from its promotional activities much of the formally innovative and “otherstream” poetries that form the inchoate heart of the art of poetry. The Academy’s activities on behalf of National Poetry Month tend to focus on the most conventional of contemporary poetry; perhaps a more accurate name for the project might be National Mainstream Poetry Month. Then perhaps we could designate August as National Unpopular Poetry Month.
So while the Academy may strike stick-in-the-mud poets like me as being insufferably elitist, to a formally innovative, “otherstream” poet like Bernstein, it’s much too populist. But of course, what most Americans mean by “popular,” as Bernstein suggests, is “best selling” – which, if you know anything about how the book, music or entertainment industries operate, has more to do with promotion and marketing than any genuine populist appeal. Truly popular poets will continue to be read and quoted and committed to memory regardless of marketing.
But for some reason, a whole lot of people do seem to want to know what other people are reading, watching and listening to so they can read, watch and listen to the same things. National Poetry Month is clearly intended to take advantage of our sheep-like tendencies, rather than to celebrate – as good poetry must – whatever is truly original, startling, rare. That’s what really bothers me about the whole business, hence my suggestion (see below). But first:
The fifth Google result for National Poetry Month is from The League of Canadian Poets. It’s Canada’s National Poetry month too, so declared and officially sponsored by the League since 1999. So the whole goddamn thing is a misnomer. (Aren’t poets supposed to be careful with language?) It’s really International Poetry Month, folks!
But we need a new way to celebrate it. Like it or not, in our society, poetry appreciation is a largely private affair; public readings aren’t for everyone. Not every good poet is a good public reader – and vice versa. Not all fans of poetry enjoy going to readings. To my mind – and y’all know I’m a huge fan of oral culture – poetry is mostly about books.
So here’s my suggestion. For International Poetry Month, why not go to your local bookstore or library and buy or borrow a book of poems by someone you’ve never heard of before? (I advise opening books at random and slowly reading whichever poem you open to – just one poem for each book – until you find one that grabs you by the throat.) Take it home and read it thoroughly and lovingly, preferably more than once. Then blog about it. Or read out loud from it on the subway. Photocopy pages from it and distribute them anonymously at work or school. Type your favorite poem(s) from the book into an e-mail and spam everyone in your address book (extra points if you can incorporate “International Poetry Month” and “V1AGRA” into the subject line). Slip the book under your pillow once or twice and see if gives you any strange dreams. Then find someone else who’s doing the same thing, and trade books.
Oh, and one other thing: after reading and sharing a book or two in this manner, please write at least one poem of your own in response. This is important. Especially if you don’t think of yourself as a poet, and have no particular aspirations to publish. You don’t have to show the poem to anyone if you don’t want to.
Screw the Academy of American Poets and their sponsors. Screw the League of Canadian Poets. Screw the poets, even – the whole nasty, fractious, backbiting lot of them (present company not necessarily excluded). Let’s make International Poetry Month be about poetry.
Tomorrow: Practicing what I preach.