Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Don't Be Cruel: Say No to National Poetry Month
Well, yeah, I'm grumpy some of the time, and I've been accused of being a curmudgeon in regards to National Poetry Month, the annual dedication to an elusive art with a small audience that itself is divided among several hundred-seeming schools of thought as to what is genuinely worth reading or promoting. The reservations come chiefly from the attitude that poetry is something pathetic in itself, with Special Needs, and that there is a collective delusion in the publishing world that poetry can be made more popular by hyping the form with the cliched hokum that sounds culled from New Age screeds. It's a little infuriating to witness an art that you believe, at it's best, sparks the unusual idea or the unforeseen connection within a reader be reduced as something that marketers promise to deliver a consumer to an even deeper vat of circumscribed thinking.
I wouldn't say my remarks about National Poetry Month are grumpy, just realistic. On the face of it I welcome a month dedicated to the art , craft and diversity of poets and their work , and even think that the month might well bring new readers to poetry as something they'd read in their leisure time. The problem is that once we give someone or some thing a special day, week, or month for the nominal purpose of increasing awareness, most of the population bothering to observe what the calendar day commemorates will nod their head, bow their head, read a few poems, maybe buy a single volume that will likely wind up half way finished and atop a coffee table, a page bent down to mark a page,not be picked up again, and then be done with it for the year. It certainly gives major publishers significant favorable publicity so they can present themselves as more than bottom-line obsessed subsidiaries of malignant media corporations: look at what we're doing to support the arts, look at our love of poetry!!
There are poets who benefit, many of them I count my favorites, but the fact that poetry in general has a month dedicated to it's supposed welfare seems more to me that the rest of the literary world considers the form a poor, sickly relative; April as poetry month is the metaphorical gulag, a ghetto, a hospice, that space where this art, which no publisher seems to know how to market so it contributes usefully to their bottom line, is allowed to make it's noise, indulge their rhetoric for a short period in the spot light before being ushered from the stage and back to the margins.
Poets, the work they do, the theories they develop regarding their art has been the most rarefied and most diffuse of the arts as it developed since the encroachment of Modernism over turned the conventional thinking about poetry's form and purpose. It's been to poetry's advantage, I think, that the audience has been small, very small, compared to the other genres that help publishers make their payrolls and their dividends, since the relative obscurity has allowed poets of many different styles and concerns, politics and agendas to advance their art and arguments , both Quietist and Post-Avant Gard, unconcerned with a commercial aspect that wasn't theirs to begin with. National Poetry Month is something like a zoo the city folk may visit on their days off , and the poets are the exotic creatures who will perform their tricks, do their dances, take their bows for the smattering of applause and loose coin that might come their way. Generally speaking, poets and their work would be better off, and saner as well, if the illusion that a dedicated month will increase the readership and increase book sales as well.
It would be better for poets to stop behaving like their in need of rehabilitation and went about their business, doing what we're supposed to do to the best our individual and collective abilities. If the work is good, interesting, of quality on it's own terms, the audience , whatever the size, will come.
(A related piece from two years ago, with a link to a useful Charles Bernstein essay.-tb)
We are here in April again, and those of us concerned a little about poetry as art need again accommodate the ludicrous thing called National Poetry Month. The hope is to get folks to change their reading habits to include poetry volumes along with their steady diets of mysteries, romances, celebrity cookbooks and memoirs written by people who will soon to be exposed as liars and cheats. Is there hope for the General Audience? The divisions in the Poetry War are drawn, both sides will wage battle for the soul of the book buyer , but the pathetic truth is that vast promotion and arguments as to the worth of verse are to no avail. Literally, no one is buying it. Or buying too little of it for the fuss and bother of having a month out of the year dedicated to poets and their obscurities.
The General Audience I speak of is vague, purposefully so, as it speaks to anyone who has an amorphous notion of how to generalize about poetry readers share in common. The war between various schools, groups and the like strikes me as more bickering between the professionals, poets, critics and academics (some of whom happen to practice all three occupations) who have status and power on the line as they advance their agenda and create an enemy camp in the interests of bolstering whatever claims can be made for a particular group's alleged superior aesthetics. Some of this ongoing disagreement is fascinating and useful, since the distinctions as they’re clarified can be informative and the criticisms each has of the other’s perceived shortcomings can potentially yield insight on issues a writer might be otherwise be too close to.
I have my preferences, sure, and I subscribe to a particular set of principles, but these rules of poetry are worn like a loose suit, not a straight jacket. Most readers who a general interests in poetry , contemporary and older, will like or dislike a variety of different approaches to verse for an equally varied set of reasons, most of which, if asked, our hypothetical General Reader would be able to explain if asked. The basic question of a poem, whether written for the lyric voice, the vernacular rant, or the experimental rigorist, is whether it works or not, both on its own terms and in terms of whether it gives pleasure or joy. Someone might suggest that teachers could increase the audience for poems if they taught the material better, but this is a strawman.We can't lay this at the teacher's feet because it's my firm conviction that most poetry, ambitious or otherwise, isn't going be the thing the large majority of their students will take after in adulthood, regardless of how good or bad a job the instructor might be. We're talking about adult readers here, those who have reading habits formed and in place for a lifetime; some are more curious about more ambitious forms, most who read poetry prefer the greatest hits of Whitman, Plath or Dickens, if they read poetry at all, and the General Audience, as we've been calling them, has not interest in poetry what so ever, except when they need a quote for a funeral or a wedding.
In other words, people who might buy a book of poems do so for reasons that are the same as they always have been, word of mouth, display, book review, and so on. Things like National Poetry Month do so very little to increase the fraction of the book buying public to have even a casual appreciation of poetry; they simply don't care for those things that are not measurable by generic conventions. Charles Bernstein wrote a cogent, if slightly smug essay in 1999 called "Against National
Poetry Month As Such" in which he derides the notion that publishers and a clatch of state and federal arts czars can increase interest in and sales of poetry collections by reducing to the level of the contrived New Age/faux mediation group think that would have us read the literature with the hope that stress and pain will go away.(I am thinking myself of Roger Housden's odious collection "Ten Poems To Change Your Life",which abuses the work of good poets by presenting them as accessories one buys on impulse at the cash register).Bernstein's main point is well taken with me, that poetry is being sold as something it isn't, like the volumes poets publish are good for you in the way that pop psych and New Age literature claim to be. What is being sold are the specious promises of poetry, not the poetry itself which, of all the literary arts, should stand alone , unencumbered by political or therapeutic contrivance. National Poetry Month is a hypocritical waste of time, I think, a commercial venture born of the kind of cynicism that enables corporations to manipulate buyers into purchasing things they haven't an honest need for.