April this year, not otherwise
Than April of a year ago
Is full of whispers, full of sighs,
Dazzling mud and dingy snow;
Hepaticas that pleased you so
Are here again, and butterflies.
—Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Song of a Second Spring”
April is National Poetry Month in the United States, and to be honest, I am somewhat ambivalent about the whole thing. National months have one of two purposes: Either they call attention to often ignored causes or products or they attempt to atone for past sins. Examples of the former include National Preparedness Month, National Grapefruit Month, and National Bourbon Heritage Month. Examples of latter are Black History Month and Women’s History Month.
While the Academy of American Poets, which launched National Poetry Month in 1996, was inspired by the success of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, National Poetry Month is a national month of the first sort. Like National Preparedness Month, it attempts to encourage people to do something they would not otherwise do because they have no particular interest in doing it.
And how does National Poetry Month attempt to get people who would not otherwise read poetry to read it? Well, by giving away free poetry books, for one. In 1998, the Academy gave away 100,000 copies of 101 Great American Poems (which can now be purchased for $1.50 new or $.01 used at Amazon.com). In 2003, it distributed copies of Across State Lines: America’s 50 States as Represented in Poetry.
It has organized other promotional activities as well. In 2001, it asked Americans to vote for “poets they would most like to see on a postage stamp.” (Langston Hughes won.) In 2006 it established a Poetry-A-Thon for primary- and secondary-school students, and in 2008 it launched Poem In Your Pocket Day, a day, as the name states, on which people were encouraged to carry a poem in their pocket the whole day.
Like National Grapefruit Day, which is organized to benefit citrus farmers, National Poetry Month is also organized for the benefit of presses and booksellers (and I suppose poets, too, though very few living poets actually benefit much from National Poetry Month). So we have things like the Knopf National Poetry Month Collection and promotional offers from both small and large poetry presses.
There is nothing wrong with these activities, and I would be very happy indeed if they actually encouraged Americans to read more poetry on a regular basis, but I doubt this is the case. In fact, I think National Poetry Month often has something of the opposite effect.
Charles Bernstein, with whom I otherwise disagree greatly, got it right when he argued a number of years ago that
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.
National Poetry Month communicates to Americans that reading poetry is something that is either boring or unpleasant (like preparing for a catastrophe), but which must be done for our own good.
Furthermore, free stuff is rarely worth anything, and giving hundreds of thousands of poetry books away communicates that poetry is cheap. A Poetry-A-Thon evokes fundraisers, and Poem In Your Pocket Day is just weird. Most people don’t like to be told what to do, much less what to put in their pockets.
Yet, for Bernstein, the problem is not so much National Poetry Day itself, but the kind of “safe” poetry it promotes:
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.
In other words, the kind of poetry he wants National Poetry Month to promote is “difficult” poetry that challenges capitalism and the consumerist sensibilities of the middle class.
Of course, this “avant-garde” pose of poets writing against their audience is at least in part to blame for the decline of poetry, as Bernstein well knows. The avant-garde poet writes poems that are meaningless, profane, or sacrilegious and, therefore, supposedly unmarketable in a capitalistic economy. This is done to shock the bourgeois out of their enslavement. But in reality, there is little concern for the middle class expressed in such poems. Furthermore, such poems are often merely ideological. While good poems can be both difficult and revolutionary, poems that are merely ideological (as I’ve argued elsewhere) are almost always bad poems. Throw in a bit of contempt and no wonder the public has become disenchanted with the art. This is not to say that poets alone are to blame for poetry’s decline, but they certainly are not innocent either.
Neither National Poetry Month nor “International Anti-Poetry Month,” as Bernstein calls his alternative, can save poetry. Neither making poetry “palatable” nor encouraging more ideological poetry will save it. And perhaps nothing can, at least for the public at large.
Yet, despite all the bad poetry out there, there is a lot of good, vibrant poetry, too, as readers of this magazine can attest. Unfortunately, what I find myself reminded of during National Poetry Month is how far poetry has fallen in terms of its readership and influence and how far it has to go to regain that readership and influence. There may be hepaticas and butterflies, but there sure is a lot of “dingy snow,” too.
So, in an effort to combat the poetic doldrums of April, here is a very short list of the poets and books of poems I am most excited about so far this year:
Amit Majmudar, Heaven and Hell. The publisher of this volume has not been named, but it won the 2011 Donald Justice Award, and will most likely appear in late 2011 or early 2012. Majmudar’s poems, which have appeared a number of times in FIRST THINGS, often draw from metaphysical poets without being nostalgic.
Joseph Bottum, The Second Spring. This is a volume of twenty-four songs with accompanying music scores. The musical scores are not difficult and the poems are a pleasure to sing, especially those set to Appalachian folk songs, which perhaps fit more neatly with contemporary American diction.
Eric Ormsby, The Baboons of Hada. Ormsby erstwhile poetry critic and polymath, publishes his first volume of poetry in a number of years this May.
Franz Wright, Kindertotenwald: Prose Poems. I know this one will cause a bit of a stir, but I like my poets to spill the beans sometimes, and Wright is good at spilling.
Les Murray, Taller When Prone. This came out last year, but I haven't had the chance to read it yet. Murray is Australia's best poet and one of the best contemporary poets writing in English.
Derek Walcott, White Egrets. This was also published last year. Walcott is a Noble Prize winner. White Egrets won the 2010 T.S. Eliot Prize in Poetry.
May we all regularly read good poems and be encouraged to live good lives.
Micah Mattix is Assistant Professor in Literature at Houston Baptist University. He is the author of Frank O'Hara and the Poetics of Saying 'I'.
Public Discourse: Micah Mattix’s “On Form and Flarf” and “Saving Poetry from Ideology”