Charles Bernstein was right: National Poetry Month is a failure. How do I know this? Because neither All Things Considered nor the New York Times, in their main stories on this year’s Pulitzers, bothered to mention the winner for poetry (3 Sections, by Vijay Seshadri from Graywolf Press). Both did of course mention who won for fiction. The Times article also mentioned the nonfiction and drama winners, while Neda Ulaby’s story on ATC included a bit about the winner for music — and modern classical music is surely a less popular art form even than modern poetry. Nor is this the first time that NPR has done this; I remember noticing the same omission last year.
I can only conclude that people in the news rooms of the newspaper of record and National Public Radio have decided that poetry just isn’t newsworthy — even when one of the two or three most significant American poetry book prizes is awarded right in the middle of April. Raising the profile of poetry is the central goal of National Poetry Month, which the Academy of American Poets has been relentlessly flogging for years, with the support of other major organizations such as the American Poetry Foundation, the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, and the National Council of Teachers of English.
Neither the New York Times nor National Public Radio seem especially hostile to poetry, either — that’s part of what makes this omission so telling. They each cover poets and poetry from time to time, I suppose as a way of trying to inflate their cultural capital. But they don’t cover it when it matters.
There is one poetry-related initiative in April that seems to have caught on a little, and that’s NaPoWriMo (which didn’t exist when Bernstein wrote his screed in 1999). The thing about that is that it’s actually very international, plus it began as an answer to NaNoWriMo, so its connection to National Poetry Month in the US seems tenuous at best. Also, I’m not sure that getting more people to write poetry necessarily leads to more people reading poetry. Poets are often some of the worst readers of poetry, in fact. So while I’m glad that NaPoWriMo has proved to have such traction and staying power, I’m not sure that it furthers the National Poetry Month goal of promoting the appreciation of poetry among general readers.
Bernstein concluded his essay with this suggestion, which I think makes more sense than ever:
As an alternative to National Poetry Month, I propose that we have an International Anti-Poetry month. As part of the activities, all verse in public places will be covered over—from the Statue of Liberty to the friezes on many of our government buildings. Poetry will be removed from radio and TV (just as it is during the other eleven months of the year). Parents will be asked not to read Mother Goose and other rimes to their children but only … fiction. Religious institutions will have to forego reading verse passages from the liturgy and only prose translations of the Bible will recited, with hymns strictly banned. Ministers in the Black churches will be kindly requested to stop preaching. Cats will be closed for the month by order of the Anti-Poetry Commission. Poetry readings will be replaced by self-help lectures. Love letters will have to be written only in expository paragraphs. Baseball will have to start its spring training in May. No vocal music will be played on the radio or sung in the concert halls. Children will have to stop playing all slapping and counting and singing games and stick to board games and football.