National Poetry Month is a failure

National Poetry Month 2014 posterCharles 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.

cowboy poetryThere 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.

Why birthdays suck

Victorian-era card showing a kitten in apron carrying a birthday cake
The Victorians pioneered two things I hate: mass-produced birthday cards and LOLcats.

Birthdays are like assholes: everyone has one, and they connect us to unpleasant realities we’d rather not think about. But that’s not why I dislike them. I dislike birthdays because, in our culture, they are a time for those who are already privileged to feel as if they own a goddamn day on the calendar.

In centuries past, only saints had special days; individuals could participate in that specialness with a celebration on the day of the saint who shared their name. So you still got an annual celebration, but it wasn’t all about you — and its significance extended far beyond your own birth and death. And in a largely agricultural society in which the annual cycle of the seasons was of much greater relevance to people’s everyday lives, imagine how simultaneously humbling and exalting it must’ve felt to have been so integrated into the cosmic wheel.

But what do we have? An individualized pseudo-holiday, hyped by the greeting-card industry, whose effect is to simultaneously flatter and insult: it’s your special day in which you are special, but don’t forget that, if you just turned 30 or above, you are now well on your way to becoming old, unattractive and irrelevant. Oh, and here’s another shit-load of stuff you don’t really need.

That said, the blowing-out-the-candles thing is pretty cool. And the chance to make all your friends wear stupid little party hats. But it’s too bad we don’t bake symbolic objects such as coins and thimbles into the cake anymore. It must’ve been a real blast waiting to see which semi-inebriated celebrant would be the first to break a tooth.

(I’m 48. Why do you ask?)


We may or may not go off the fiscal cliff at midnight, but if we do, it’ll be part of a proud American tradition of dropping things from high places on New Year’s Eve. Most famous, of course, is the ball drop at Times Square, but there are many others, according to the Wikipedia. I’m not sure that anyone’s ever tried dropping anything quite so large as an entire electorate, but that’s what makes this so exciting! The secret to American greatness, after all, is that we make everything bigger. (Well, O.K., maybe that’s not so secret.) And hey, you know what else has dropped? “Congress’ approval rating is perilously close to the margin of error for none at all,” reports the Roll Call.

I’m proud to say that Pennsylvania has the most New Year’s Eve droppings of any state. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows the state’s history as Landfill Central and industrial sacrifice area for energy extraction and production. The same civic leaders who endorse the dropping of giant French fries, pickles, lollipops and stuffed goats on New Year’s are happy to invite other states and multinational corporations to leave their droppings all over the commonwealth. The party’s on us! The only way we could make the forced gaiety and over-indulgence of our annual New Year’s celebration more festive would be to dance around a bonfire of state forest trees, clear-cut to build fracking well pads, compressor stations and transmission corridors.

In other news, tens of thousands of virtual pets were snuffed out by Zynga yesterday when it shut down PetVille. If only it had waited 24 hours, we could have dropped them off the tops of virtual buildings. Because nothing says Happy New Year like the electronic squeal of a falling puppy.

Heat Indices

This entry is part 13 of 20 in the series Highgate Cemetery Poems


Sad broken angel

Bombs go off right across the world
from where I live, among a people who
look like me. This is news because
they are not at war — or at least,
not very much — & because they look
just like me. Meanwhile in America
we are blowing up mountains
& burning their black hearts to keep cool.
Meanwhile in America we are setting off
three & a half million pounds of explosives
every day in this undeclared war
against ourselves. This is not news because
it happens every day & is therefore
nothing new; because there is no easy-
to-tar enemy except perhaps for
the black-hearted mountains;
& because the people who die from it
die slowly & unspectacularly,
& are too often guilty of being poor.
Meanwhile in America it is hot
& getting hotter, & this is news
because it keeps us indoors, glued
to the news or at least to the sweat-
sticky couch. Meanwhile in America
the news anchors make a show
of indignation at the sun, righteous
& well-coiffed as fallen angels, &
never speculate about why we might
really be so hot, never mention
that we are blowing up mountains
& burning their black hearts to keep cool.


Note: I don’t mean to minimize the horror of the events in Norway, which now seem actually to be more about the massacre on the island than the initial bomb blasts. Every violent death, especially the death of a child, is a tragedy regardless of where in the world it happens — even schoolchildren in Appalachia who get brain tumors from having the misfortune of living too close to coal processing plants.

How to write a book review

Read quickly. You’re not being paid enough to spend quality time with this book, and besides, you can usually tell within the first five pages whether the author has written the book you want to read, or something that merits only scorn. You can try opening it at random and reading ten different pages to get a flavor of it. Or make like Marshall McLuhan and read — or rather skim — just the odd-numbered pages.

If it’s a novel, you’re not supposed to give away the ending in any case. Reading all the way to the end is for suckers and college interns eager to suck up to the editor. The important thing is to demonstrate critical acumen in the review, which is best done by adopting a tone of lofty condescension, unless the author is a friend or someone who might conceivably be asked to review your own next book, in which case you are better off to hail the work as groundbreaking while at the same time naming other writers in the same genre to which is bears a close resemblance. These writers can be selected more or less random — the more off-the-wall the comparisons, the more you’ll come across as eclectic and perceptive (not to mention well-read).

Important note: don’t be too hasty in emailing this off to your editor. Fact-check to make sure you have the basic details right, such as the main character’s name and situation. If you screw that up, you risk blowing your cover and looking like a total dumb-ass.

Poetry is a trickier case, but one rarely encountered by the professional reviewer, since so few major publications want to risk driving away readers with reviews whose sole value is to garner a little extra high-brow credibility for the publication. If you are called upon to review a book of poetry, the safest approach again is to open the book in a number of places at random. Select four or five reasonably interesting quotes, decide what they likely mean in the context of the book as suggested by the blurbs and publisher’s description, then decide whether or not this is the sort of poetry you like and respond appropriately, either with fulsome praise or scathing condemnation. Since the American poetry scene is riven by factionalism, such extremes of rhetoric are the norm.

Poetry review editors also sometimes ask for three or four books to be included in the same review. On the surface, this might seem to make your job even harder, but not really. Now you only need to find one or two exemplary quotes per book, and their greater variety will push you to greater heights of creativity in your connective prose. If you’re really feeling puckish, and if the publication isn’t one that specializes in poetry, deduce a trend. Whatever you do, don’t engage with the subject matter of the poems, unless to belittle the poet (Sharon Olds’ obsession with sex, Mary Oliver’s rhapsodies about nature). You’re better than that. Remember, poetry is all about language, in the same way that painting is all about paint. Leave the achingly sincere analyses to the Christian Science Monitor and small-time bloggers.

Woodrat Podcast 32: Happy New Year?

New Year's self-portrait
New Year's self-portrait

A very brief show with no guest — just me holding forth. Best wishes for a creative and productive 2011. May the fleeting moments of joy and transcendence out-weigh the boredom and despair.

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Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence)

WikiLeaks and the problem of too much information

It doesn’t seem that long ago — around 2000, maybe? — that I first heard someone say “TMI” and had to ask what it meant. This morning, as news breaks that the anarchistic, world-wide non-organization of geeks known as Anonymous have launched DDoS attacks against the websites of MasterCard, Swedish prosecutors, and others they consider to be unfairly targeting WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, it occurs to me that the problem or scandal of “too much information” is very much at the heart of what’s shaping up to be the first global information war — call it WIW I, or perhaps WWWW I (World Wide Web War I).

What was it I’d said that prompted one of my New Jersey cousins to say, laughingly, “TMI, Dave!” that first time? Knowing me, probably a reference to gross bodily functions. It’s interesting how often our concerns for privacy and secrecy boil down to the desire for a figurative fig-leaf over our private parts. By a curious accident, the U.S. government’s furious reaction to the so-called Cablegate leaks immediately follows the furor in the press about the new “security” measures in American airports requiring all passengers to submit to complete physical transparency via scanner, or else endure invasive pat-downs many liken to sexual assault. Now it is Assange, the public face of the otherwise secretive Wikileaks organization, being accused of sexual assault, and once again, it is right-wing libertarians and left-wing anti-imperialists who are loudest in the defense of what we see as a civil rights or human rights issue. But while mainstream conservatives were happy to fan the flames of public discontent over Airport Gategate, on Cablegate they’ve joined with mainstream liberals in echoing or amplifying the government’s propaganda.

As regular Via Negativa readers know, I rarely post about political issues directly — this is only the 19th time I’ve assigned a post to the Rants category, as opposed to 187 posts with a more personal or elliptical approach to politics in the Personal/Political category. But as a web publisher, I do take the persecution of WikiLeaks personally, and as a U.S. citizen, I am embarrassed and appalled by the government’s hypocrisy in attempting exactly the sort of extra-judicial suppression of information-sharing that they have chastised other countries for. And as a writer, I’ve grown dependent on the Internet for information of all kinds — not only for blog posts like this, but even while writing poems. Threats to Internet freedom scare the hell out of me.

My horror at being on the wrong side of the public drumbeat against Wikileaks — a kind of isolation I haven’t felt since October 2001 and the lead-up to our bombing and invasion of Afghanistan — is combined with fascination at the manifold ways in which Cablegate illuminates the problem of TMI.

  1. The size of the leaked cache of diplomatic cables has become a sort of talisman for both sides in the emerging war. Like almost everyone, I rely on the cooperating journalists at The Guardian, The New York Times, and other cooperating newspapers to sort and analyze it, even though I realize that these filters are far from neutral. As the Wikileaks organization itself realizes, the size of an information cache presents both unique opportunities and unique challenges.
  2. The official propaganda line characterizes the information — both the few cables already released and those still pending — as too much in the specific sense that they serve a supposedly warped and dangerous vision of total transparency. This is genius because it suggests a covert connection with the immediately preceding crisis, Airport Gategate, turning the ever-potent paranoia of the more politically engaged segment of the American public, otherwise predisposed to distrust the government, against WikiLeaks and Julian Assange instead.
  3. Propaganda itself is perhaps the original TMI: blanketing the airwaves and newspapers with a few false charges (e.g. that Wikileaks did nothing to redact the names of persons who might be injured by the release, that it is a terrorist organization with blood on its hands, that Assange is a criminal mastermind and monster) can easily overwhelm and smother the truth. This is philosophically interesting because in this instance it’s actually too little that we have too much of. And information that may contain a grain of truth is exaggerated to support the propaganda, partaking in the too-muchness of hyperbole.
  4. Information differs from knowledge — a word I much prefer — in one important respect: false information is still information. The diplomatic cables at the center of the war are of course highly biased, and in many cases illuminate the extent to which high-level government employees believe their own propaganda. Volume is essential to organizational self-duplicity, as members actively work to convince each other of the lies they serve. I think something similar happens when new religions are born. The more patently absurd the “truth,” the more strident and verbose its adherents must become.
  5. According to the popular proverb, knowledge is power. A more accurate if less catchy saying might be that secrecy is a key to power. The selective withholding of information creates a privileged class of people, and more than anything, the State Department cable leaks show the extent to which this power is now routinely abused as the cognoscenti expand their ranks. This is a dilemma inherent to power itself: the more it is shared, the more it is dissipated. And eventually it is shared with someone who does not buy into the group-think: a whistleblower. Too much information was classified by too many people with too little justification.
  6. Data and information aren’t quite synonymous, but they’re pretty close. Isn’t a distributed denial-of-service attack itself a potent example of, or at least analogy for, the power of too much information flooding a given processing system in too short a time?

Update: John Miedema, whose past blogging on the subject of information overload informed my thinking here, has new post about this: World Information War I: It’s Not Being Fought on the Web.

If not for Colvin

Readers of my previous post might wonder why it was necessary to write protection of the Adirondack State Park into the New York constitution. Isn’t that a bit of overkill, and a frank admission that our public servants are not to be trusted? Well, perhaps so. But there’s nothing that the capitalist system hates more than unexploited resources, and quite often state foresters and politicians are only too ready to cooperate with the exploiters. Efforts to undo the “forever wild” provision got underway almost as soon as the ink dried on the new constitution, and they haven’t let up in the century since.

Wildness is like love: you can’t just suspend it for a little while in the interest of some other attachment, and expect it to return unharmed at your convenience. Once you violate it, it ain’t coming back — at least, not for a long time. But especially in an economic downturn, it’s easy to forget the long-term economic and ecological benefits of wildlands in the search for a quick fix.

What just happened in Pennsylvania is instructive, I think. Read this shocking summary of the Pennsylvania legislature’s assault on state parks, state forests, and the state environmental regulatory agency from the chair of the State Public Lands committee of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club, Arthur Clark. It’s worth pointing out, too — for the benefit of my more partisan friends — that this all happened under a Democratic governor, with a state legislature narrowly controlled by the Democratic Party. (Pennsylvania’s last good governor for public lands issues was actually a Republican, Tom Ridge.) Though Gov. Rendell was happy to accept Sierra Club support in his reelection campaign, he can’t run again, and he appears to have some rather more important friends in the oil and gas industry.

The take-home message? While much of New York’s water supply is protected by its constitution, Pennsylvania’s groundwater, streams and rivers are about to be drawn down and probably contaminated on a massive scale by deep drilling for the Marcellus shale unnatural gas boom. New York had Verplanck Colvin; Pennsylvania had Gifford Pinchot, first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service and twice the governor of Pennsylvania, who defined forestry as “the art of producing from the forest whatever it can yield for the service of man.” Their legacies couldn’t be more different.

UPDATE (10/13): Here’s the Harrisburg Patriot-News editorial on what they call (riffing on the new Ken Burns documentary) “The Conservation Compromise: Pennsylvania’s Worst Idea.” (Hat-tip: R. Martin, PA Forest Coalition email)

I am an enemy combatant

It’s a scene straight out of The Gulag Archipelago:

Some of the poems written by inmates were first scrawled in toothpaste on Styrofoam cups or etched into the cups with small stones, since in their first year of captivity the prisoners were not allowed to use pen and paper.

Any poem found by prison guards was confiscated and usually destroyed, the former prisoners say. …

Authorities explained why the military has been slow to declassify the poems … arguing that inmates could use the works to pass coded messages to other militants outside. …

Hundreds of poems remain suppressed by the military … [which] believes that their original Arabic or Pashto versions represent an enhanced security risk.

[A military spokesman said] they have attempted to use this medium as merely another tool in their battle of ideas … [He] had not, at the time, read the poems.

The prisoners remain entirely cut off from the world: military censors excise all references to current events from the occasional letters allowed from family members, and lawyers may not tell prisoners any personal or general news unless it directly relates to their cases. Indeed, dozens of prisoners have attempted suicide by hanging, by hoarding medicine and then overdosing, or by slashing their wrists.

The military, in typical Orwellian fashion, has described these suicide attempts as incidents of “manipulative self-injurious behavior.”

This is, however, not Soviet Russia, or China, or North Korea. It’s the limbo known as Guantanamo Bay.

We truly are a nation of chickenshits. Like Jon Stewart, I was baffled by the apoplectic reaction of members of Congress to the idea that men accused of terrorism be housed in maximum security prisons “on American soil,” as the inevitable expression has it. But I guess most politicians from both parties recognized a golden opportunity to grandstand and play on their constituents’ xenophobia without running the risk of being accused of racism.

We are afraid of scary foreign invaders, perhaps because most of us are ourselves the descendents of scary foreign invaders, armed with what they took for God’s blessing on their project of theft, slavery, and genocide.

We are afraid of foreign languages and the people who speak them. What are they saying about us? Are they chanting spells to turn the cows’ milk sour and make the crops wither? Though many minority communities have preserved their languages for generations without ill effect, and evidence abounds that bilingual people are, if anything, more adaptable and imaginative than monolingual people, we continue to see linguistic diversity as a threat.

We are afraid of poetry, and suspicious of the people who write it. Why do they have to write in code? Why can’t they just come out and say what they mean? If they’re men, why can’t they engage in more manly pursuits, like playing with their firearms or watching professional wrestling?

We are afraid of ideas, and suspicious of the people who enjoy engaging with them. We seem to agree with Big Brother in 1984 that Ignorance is Strength.

We are afraid of true freedom and what it might lead to. We excel in the building of prisons and the construction of tortured logic to support our continued exploitation of global resources, natural and human. We are — as the amateur Yemeni poet in the article says — artists of insults and humiliation. We falsely conflate freedom with ownership, which is to say, slavery.

We are, above all, afraid of the truth. Even more so than most other peoples, Americans enjoy being lied to, as evidenced by our insatiable appetite for advertising and spin. The rare politician who dares to point out certain obvious truths, such as the fact that we can’t have our cake and eat it too, is quickly out of a job. The current president got the position mainly because of his ability to sound sincere while delivering vacuous, feel-good platitudes… and because he hugely outspent his opponent on advertising. And despite promising to close Guantanamo Bay, our Liar-in-Chief now himself endorses indefinite detention. A trial might reveal too many dangerous or uncomfortable truths.

I say “we” and “our,” but of course I am not really one of us, but one of them. Like the Guantanomo prisoners, I too weave coded messages into my poems, layers of meaning without which they would cease to be poems — or indeed to convey anything of the truth, which is usually complex, often paradoxical, and always inimical to the interests of the powerful. Though I don’t often mention it, figuring that surreptitious campaigns have a greater chance of success than open ones, I am engaged in a battle of ideas with those who believe that War is (or can ever lead to) Peace and the rest of it. Like the indefinite detainees, I resort to poetry because without it I believe I would go mad or commit suicide. I am an enemy combatant.

Down and dirty

Election Day Fracas, from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

Nothing quite says “Earth Day” to me like a battle for supremacy between two magnificent wild animals. Unfortunately, however, I had to settle for a squabble between two groundhogs under and (briefly) in front of my house. Hey, it beats reading yet another stupid email entitled “Ten Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth.” (If it were simple, we’d have saved the earth ten times over by now. I’m more in Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s camp: if something doesn’t make me angry or at least uncomfortable, it’s probably not true.)

But as I listened to the groundhogs’ threats and screams, and took in the dirt and the abundant flies, I remembered that it was also Primary Election Day here in Punxatawney Phil land. I’m registered Independent myself, so I won’t be participating in this wonderful exercise in sandbox democracy. If there’s hog to be ground — and I imagine there is — I’ll just have to leave that to my fellow Younsers.*

Given the predicted high turnout and the general disorganization at Pennsylvania’s polling places, I’m not too sanguine that this will be over by tomorrow morning, or even by the end of the week. Let me know when it’s safe to come out, O.K.?

groundhog snout

*Younser: An inhabitant of that portion of Pennsylvania where “you’ns” is in common use as a second-person plural pronoun. Younsers give way to Yinzers west of Johnstown.