Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Welcome to Nat'l Poetry Month - Part 1

Mr. Eliot, and poets like him,
want you to read more poetry...
It would be the easiest thing in the world to write a post today praising how we are are now in the midst of the annual celebration of verse in the U.S.

This is not news. Since 1996 when the American Academy of Poets made its declaration, the arrival of April always brings with it a predictable flurry of bookstore banners and special activities in K-12 classrooms.

April has come and, unlike what T. S. Eliot, said it is not the "cruelest month."

No, April is the most poetic! This is National Poetry Month.

Up With Poetry?
The purpose of NPM is for supporters of poetry to catch the attention of the masses and urge upon them poetry as a public good. The idea is to help people realize that poetry can be sustenance for their overworked, overstressed souls. So appreciate your local poet!

This sounds like a fine idea, but it has to be at least a hundred times harder "sell" than asking people to support teachers, firemen, or cancer survivors.

I mean, poets? What are they good for?

But that's the point. Poets and poetry these days need all the help they can get. Other than a few students and the ultra-refined ladies tea types who show up at occasional readings, does anyone care about poetry anymore? Does anyone think they need to read it?

National Poetry Month promotes the idea that poems are good
for the national health. Pick up a few the next time you're out and about.

The Decline of Poetry 
 It may be hard to believe, but there was a time, just a couple of generations ago, when every school child in America was exposed to lots of poetry. They were even forced to memorize some.

Ask anyone in their 80s or older to recite a poem and you might be surprised to hear a croaky voiced version of Longfellow's "Hiawatha" emerge or Robert Service's "Dan McGrew" or maybe even some Tennyson and "The Charge of the Light Brigade" or Wordsworth's "I wandered as lonely as a cloud..." or a Shakespeare sonnet.

In the old days teachers wore rhyming verse into the grooves of their students' minds.

Then something happened.

Free verse emerged as the dominant style in poetry. Such poems were very hard to memorize and contemporary poets, frankly, weren't always as fun to read as the oldie but goodie romantics who were more interested in love and adventure than anything else.

Then there came the mass distribution of pop music in the form of 45 records and radio which brought to everyone song lyrics in rhyming couplet form that you could memorize in a flash and then sing back to your friends. Who needed poetry? Pop was poetry!

The next place poetry showed up? In hip hop music. Sometimes it was street-wise ugly, but it was all about the words. And the result was plain: You no longer needed to read poetry when you could listen to the words that seemed to speak about your life and it came with a big fat beat.

Enter NPM with its goal of creating demand for the work of traditional and contemporary poets.

A Contrarian View
As a person who enjoys shaking hands with left-handed persons, I'm always interested in a different take on things. Case in point,  poet August Kleinzahler.

A few years ago in the hallowed pages of Poetry magazine, Mr. Kleinzahler excoriated radio personality Garrison Keillor for...well, practically for just being alive and breathing the same air as everyone else on the planet.

Ready to rumble...August Kleinzahler hits Garrison Keillor
right in the baritone bread basket.
Kleinzahler's main target, however, was Keillor's Good Poems anthology which collected in print cherry pickings from his daily five-minute radio show, "The Writer's Almanac." Each morning on the show Mr. Keillor mentions some famous folks' who were born on this day, then reads a poem he's selected for the edification of the masses.

Kleinzahler in his review let the world know that he finds Keillor to be unctuous, preacherly, clueless, and a bad reader to boot. He feels that Keillor is sermonizing for unchallenging poetry as if it will do us all good, sort of like trying to get the public to eat a more heart healthy diet.

"Poetry is not good for you!!" Kleinzahler grumps (paraphrasing): "It exists like fine wine only for the elites who can appreciate it. So give up these misguided crusades to get everyone to like it."

Along the way, Kleinzahler declared that National Poetry Month is simply an advertisement for "a $250 million dollar industry, a rather seamy industry, and an off-shoot of the rather seamy Human Potential Movement industry." 

He said that American poetry, internationally, is regarded as a "joke," the implication being why on earth would we want to dedicate an entire month to reading and promoting more of it?

Ah, but what about the school children? They're the main focus of National Poetry Month as English teachers throughout the land use lesson plans that acquaint students with great poets and even encourage students to write little limericks or haikus.

I think Kleinzahler would say this: "These kids want to listen to hip hop music, so let 'em!" After all, he believes the following:

Ninety percent of adult Americans can pass through this life tolerably well, if not content, eating, defecating, copulating, shopping, working, catching the latest Disney blockbuster, without having a poem read to them by Garrison Keillor or anyone else. Nor will their lives be diminished by not standing in front of a C├ęzanne at the art museum or listening to a Beethoven piano sonata. Most people have neither the sensitivity, inclination, or training to look or listen meaningfully, nor has the culture encouraged them to, except with the abstract suggestion that such things are good for you. Multivitamins are good for you. Exercise, fresh air, and sex are good for you. Fruit and vegetables are good for you. Poetry is not.

Something to Think About
Do we need NPM? I can only say that I used to be a Philistine who hated poetry. All of it. Or at least the little I was acquainted with.

I happened, though, to enjoy seeing a Cezanne in an art museum or listening to a Beethoven piano sonata. I had the "sensitivity" that Mr. Kleinzahler thinks is relatively rare, but I lacked one thing: exposure to the art form (poetry) I thought I deplored.

Was it National Poetry Month that got through to me? Honestly, no, because my conversion to poetry happened a few years before NPM was institutionalized. However, I can only think that NPM can help people like me who perhaps don't know what they're missing. When it puts poetry books on display, holds readings, and yes, teaches young people how to read a poem with enjoyment it's giving a glimpse of otherwise overlooked possibilities.

Will everyone like poetry? No way! But should it be kept in Mr. Kleinzahler's distant hillside caves where only the poetry initiates like himself can sit around by the poetic fires, sipping strong wine, and enjoying their abstruse verse?

I think not. I say poetry no more belongs to Kleinzahler's type of person than the clouds and the birds of the air do. The proles may take poetry and dumb it down to suit their taste (Kleinzahler's main reason for disliking Garrison Keillor), but how does that injure August Kleinzahler up there in his hillside cave?

Or is he worried that down here in National Poetry Land we're actually having more fun than him? - V.W.

COMING: How I Learned to Love instead of Loathe Poetry...


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