Whan that Aprill...

From March 30 to April 1 the glorious cacophony that is American poetry was on display at the People’s Poetry Gathering in New York City. Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz presided over a meeting of folk, dub (reggae), political, formalist, avant-garde, and even more esoteric schools of poets. With its "slam" contests and seminars on "Poetry and Beauty," the gathering was an unusual, blessed exception to the current disconnect between elite and popular poetry. And it might be the start of a new kind of National Poetry Month.

Observed every April ("the cruellest month") since 1996, you’d think a month devoted to promoting America’s poetic legacy and to bringing contemporary poets and poems to the attention of schools and a wider public would be uncontroversial. Think again.

Critics charge that the American Academy of Poets, founder of National Poetry Month, treats poems like castor oil. Read poems! They’re good for you! The academy, the critics go on, sells poetry short by favoring message-oriented poems, and by seeking sponsorship from the very newspapers, publishers, and bookstore chains most responsible for increasing the difficulty that unknown but talented poets have getting heard and being printed.

But as with many protests, hyperbole and truth are intertwined. Are Americans so allegeric to poetry that they require an ad campaign to sell it? As regularly seen on PBS’s "News Hour," former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project decisively answers no. Pinsky and staff have been creating a video and audio collection of people from all walks of American life reading their favorite poems. The day Gwendolyn Brooks died, the "News Hour" played a file tape of her reading her poem "We Real Cool," about black teenagers on Chicago’s South Side, followed by a video of a teenager reciting the same, from a rooftop of South Boston, and then explaining how the poem had helped him deal with the recent teen suicides in his working-class, white neighborhood. Nothing hokey about it. There is also a Web site, www.favoritepoem.org, that will leave any visitor heartened about the national poetic soul.

Does that mean the state of poetry is marvelous? Certainly not. Though poetry sales have risen almost 30 percent since 1996, much of that growth is in poets whose work is best described as sentimental dreck. Ezra Pound said "Make it new." Today’s marketers say "Make it sell," and they, alas, seem to be in charge. Their strategy? Push the works of a few big-name poets, and beyond that target specific groups. Peruse a catalog or bookstore shelf: choose among women, African American, gay, teenage, Latino, or even cowboy poets. There is great poetry within every one of these categories-also lots of wishful thinking that poetry will lend an aura of authenticity to what is mere blather. But does anyone remember when poets aimed for a big audience and wrote about public events? In 1969, Neil Armstrong touched the moon and the New York Times op-ed page was filled with poems. Protesters took to the streets against the war in Vietnam, and poets Robert Bly, Denise Levertov, and many others took up their pens.

Today, it is a privilege to live among the electrifying cacophony on parade at the People’s Poetry Gathering, rather than, say, to be in England where two poets-Seamus Heaney and the late Ted Hughes-account for 60 percent of poetry sales. Nonetheless, our national conversation about poetry is not nearly as inspiring as it could be. Where are the critics and reviewers writing for popular audiences (and the newspapers that will publish them!), the public poet-intellectuals, eager to sort out the good from the trivial in the astonishing variety and abundance of contemporary poetry? Americans have always embraced poetry, that is, popular poetry: ballads, folk songs, Broadway show tunes, and now slam poetry. But in the old days, popular poets and versifiers knew their high culture: they mocked and they borrowed. That happens rarely today. Ditto elite poets, who once wittily used popular culture. Those who do today are simply left out of the critical conversation.

High seriousness is a problem that the poet Frank O’Hara saw coming as early as 1959 when he wrote "Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not....Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too." What he could not know was how hostile the pace of culture would become to poetry. In order to read a poem you have to be still inside and attentive to the pleasure that can come from words qua words, or from a gorgeous image unfolding. You have to be open to a penetrating insight deeply imbedded in the stuff of language. Is there room for that in our hectic, pragmatic, advertising- and information-saturated lives?

No one really wants to jettison National Poetry Month, even when poets grumble that it could be more inclusive, more countercultural, edgier. This is a month when a child in school just might bump into a poem that makes him or her a reader of poetry for life. It’s also a time when each of us can take down the book of Psalms, or Mother Goose, or an American giant-say, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Frank O’Hara, Langston Hughes. Maybe in the midst of reading Whitman’s windy Song of Myself you’ll find a stunning set of images:

By the mechanic’s wife with her babe at her nipple interceding for every person born,

Three scythes at harvest whizzing in a row from three lusty angels with shirts bagg’d out at their waists.

Maybe, thanks to Langston Hughes’s "Theme for English B," you’ll sit awhile with the possibilities (our comic history) and the discomforts (our tragic one) that stem from American diversity, be it of race, politics, or poetry:

Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.

Nor do I often want to be a part of you.

But we are, that’s true!

Poetry can help us see such truth, but not unless we allow it time to work on us. April is such a time.

Published in the 2001-04-20 issue: 
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