April 15, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

A Word of Dissent about National Poetry Month

It’s not that National Poetry Month is a terrible idea. After all, why not honor something that we value and love, as do observers of National Kite Month, National Humor Month, National Mathematics Education Month, and California Earthquake Preparedness Month (all of which occur in April as well)? Does not poetry have much in common with these other pursuits? Poetry provides its pleasures, as does the flying of kites. Poetry has its humors, along with its educational uses (even if the counting of iambs is about as mathematically arcane as it usually gets). And while it may be true that poetry makes nothing happen, is not its pursuit a way of preparing for quakings of the soul? Well, no. Not exactly. Perhaps inexactly.

Nor does my dissent from this national poetry observance arise from how vulnerable it makes us to the quip that now April really is the cruelest month. One need not look far in our literary culture to find third-rate descriptions of sunsets and trees, hand-me-down feelings, and second-hand epiphanies. It would be one thing if National Poetry Month offered an opportunity to atone for our literary sins (and God knows I have plenty of my own to atone for), and it would be something if National Poetry Month immediately brought to mind “Arma virumque cano” or “Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit / Of that forbidden tree” or “Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me” or “A bird re-entering a bush, / like an idea regaining / its intention”; but as far as I can tell, the month does not do these things–at least it does not do them to me, even though great poets (along with my own literary transgressions) are often on my mind.

One problem that I often confront is the extent to which poetry is cheapened in our culture, from the sentimentalities of greeting-card verse to those of movies about wide-eyed high school teachers turning their dullard students into wild-eyed denizens of poetry. And I still cannot figure out why, even among persons who should surely know better, certain purple passages of prose are designated ‘poetic’; could it be because they are as poorly written as the most flowery and ornamental of verse? As far as I can tell, National Poetry Month has done little to help in these matters.

I believe that part of the problem is the attempt to make poetry popular and widely read, as if there has ever been a time–since the ancient days of oral tradition when the classic culture and popular culture were much the same, and the meaning and use of poetry were strikingly different from what they have become for us now (for more on the dynamics of ancient orality, see the work of Albert Lord, Eric Havelock, and Walter Ong, among others)–when poetry of great moment and heft was widely read in the English-speaking world. I take it that what we are talking about primarily in National Poetry Month is the written art–I consider Slam Poetry to be a perfectly legitimate art form (with its own dynamics, protocols, conventions, and modes of performance), but one quite distinct from the kind of poetry that concerns me in these present reflections. Given the relatively recent achievement of near universal literacy in our culture, through most of the history of the written art there was no question of any poet being widely read. True enough, Lord Byron really sold the volumes back in his day–much as Seamus Heaney sells them now–but Keats could barely give his books away. Even when books sell well, it’s difficult to say when they are read well or at all, for acts of reading are notoriously difficult to track (but this is subject matter for another blog).

Like any other art form, fine or rough, poetry has always found its initiates, those who are willing to honor its rigors and its demands. My concern about the attempts to make poetry more widely appealing and read is that such attempts will tend to water it down. Why not keep the drink strong? No doubt, we teachers–when we have an ax to grind or an agenda to promote–do our share of scaring willing readers away. But I don’t think the strength of the drink has ever been a serious deficit.