Author of My Way: Speeches and
And they say
If I would just sing lighter songs
me would it be,
But not is this truthful;
For sense remote
worth and gives it
Even if ignorant reading impairs it;
But it’s my
That these songs yield
No value at the commencing
when one earns it.
Giraut de Bornelh (12th century)
April is the cruelest month for poetry.
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,
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.
Through its “safe poetry” free verse distribution program, the American
Academy of Poetry’s major initiative for National Poetry Month is to give away
millions of generic “poetry books” to random folks throughout the country. This
program is intended to promote safe reading experiences and is based on ARF’s
founding principle that safe poetry is the best prophylactic against aesthetic
Free poetry is never free, nor is free verse without patterns.
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Only an auctioneer admires all schools of art.”
National Poetry month professes to an undifferentiated promotion for “all”
poetry, as if supporting all poetry, any more than supporting all politics, you
could support any.
National Poetry Month is about making poetry safe for readers by promoting
examples of the art form at its most bland and its most morally “positive.” The
message is: Poetry is good for
you. But, unfortunately, promoting poetry as if it were an “easy listening”
station just reinforces the idea that poetry is culturally irrelevant and has
done a disservice not only to poetry deemed too controversial or difficult to
promote but also to the poetry it puts forward in this way. “Accessibility” has
become a kind of Moral Imperative based on the condescending notion that readers
are intellectually challenged, and mustn’t be presented with anything but Safe
Poetry. As if poetry will turn people off to poetry.
Poetry: Readers Wanted. The kind of poetry I want is not a
happy art with uplifting messages and easy to understand emotions. I want a
poetry that’s bad for you. Certainly not the kind of poetry that Volkswagen
would be comfortable about putting in every new car it sells, which, believe it
or not, is a 1999 feature of the Academy’s National Poetry Month program.
The most desirable aim of the Academy’s National Poetry Month is to increase
the sales of poetry books. But when I scan some of the principal corporate
sponsors of the program of the past several years, I can’t help noting (actually
I can but I prefer not to) that some are among the major institutions that work
actively against the wider distribution of poetry. The large chain bookstores
are no friends to the small presses and independent bookstores that are the
principal supporters of all types of American poetry: they have driven many
independents out of business and made it more difficult for most small presses
(the site of the vast majority of poetry publishing) to get their books into
retail outlets, since by and large these presses are excluded from the large
chains. I also note this year that The New York Times is a major sponsor of National Poetry
Month; but if the Times would take seriously the task of
reviewing poetry books and readings, it would be doing a far greater service to
poetry than advertising its support for National Poetry Month. The whole thing
strikes me as analogous to cigarette makers sponsoring a free emphysema clinic.
Indeed, part of the purpose of the Academy’s National Poetry Month appears to be
to advertise National Poetry Month and its sponsorsthus, the Academy has taken
out a series of newspapers ads that mention no poets and no poems but rather
announce the existence of National Poetry Month with a prominent listing of its
backers, who appear, in the end, to be sponsoring themselves.
The path taken by the Academy’s National Poetry Month, and by such
foundations as Lannan and the Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Fund, have been
misguided because these organizations have decided to promote not poetry but the
idea of poetry, and the idea of poetry too often has meant almost no poetry at
all. Time and time again we hear the official spokespersons tell us they want to
support projects that give speedy and efficient access to poetry and that the
biggest obstacle to this access is, indeed, poetry, which may not provide the
kind of easy reading required by such mandates.
The solution: find poetry that most closely resembles the fast and easy
reading experiences of most Americans under the slogansAway with Difficulty!
Make Poetry Palatable for the People! I think particularly of the five-year plan
launched under the waving banners of Disguise the Acid Taste of the Aesthetic
with NutriSweet Coating, which emphasized producing poetry in short sound bites,
with MTV-type images to accompany them, so the People will not even know they
are getting poetry.
This is the genius of the new Literary Access programs: the more you dilute
art, the more you appear to increase the access. But access to what? Not to
anything that would give a reader or listener any strong sense that poetry
matters, but rather access to a watered down version that lacks the cultural
edge and the aesthetic sharpness of the best popular and mass culture. The only
reason that poetry matters is that is has something different to offer,
something slower on the uptake, maybe, but more intense for all that, and also
something necessarily smaller in scale in terms of audience. Not better than
mass culture but a crucial alternative to it.
The reinvention, the making of a poetry for our time, is the only thing that
makes poetry matter. And that means, literally, making poetrymatter, that
is making poetry that intensifies the matter or materiality of poetryacoustic,
visual, syntactic, semantic. Poetry is very much alive when it finds ways of
doing things in a media-saturated environment that only poetry can do, but very
much dead when it just retreads the same old same old.
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 overfrom 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
As part of the campaign, the major daily newspapers will run full page ads
with this text:
You won’t be able to understand it anyway:
the best stuff is all over your
And there aren’t even any commercials to liven up the action.
Anyway, you’ll end up with a headache trying to figure out
what the poems
are saying because they are saying
Who needs that.
Better go to the