When the poet Chaucer saw that it was April, one year in the late 1300s, he wrote cheerily about its sweet showers piercing the drought of March to the root. When T.S. Eliot saw that it was April, some five and a half centuries later, he wrote bleakly about it being the cruelest month, “breeding lilacs out of the dead land,” dragging us back to life. Same idea, different responses, defining the double aspect of the season for literate English-speaking people everywhere.
But when the American Academy of Poets saw that it was April, way back in 1996, its members did not sit down to write a poem; they decided to create National Poetry Month. They picked April partly because they remembered its associations with good old Chaucer and Eliot, but mostly because they wanted a month when school was in session, complete with captive audience, and April was the only one free: February was already Black History Month, March was Women’s History Month and fall was too crowded with distractions like Halloween and Thanksgiving. And so, ever since, Americans (and Canadians) who go anywhere near a school, a library or a bookstore in April are reminded by the omnipresence of posters, displays and real live poets that poetry is Fun and Good for You and Not as Hard to Understand as You Might Think. Two years ago, Volkswagen reportedly threw in a poem with every new car it sold in April.
The fact is, National Poetry Month (a.k.a. NPM) is a well-intentioned but disquieting ritual that does not necessarily advance the cause of poetry.
It is true that everybody should be exposed to a little poetry — as long as it is good poetry, the kind that Emily Dickinson said makes you feel as if the top of your head has been taken off. As William Carlos Williams put it: “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” Devotees argue about what that life-giving something is, but it surely involves the magic of recognizing one’s own, or even unfamiliar, experiences miraculously compressed and heightened. Poetry is “A thousand topics/ in an apple blossom” (Williams again), “a bell with many echoes” (Yeats) or maybe just, in Coleridge’s unbeatable definition, “the best words in the best order.” When a good poem meets the right reader, the emotion that is generated is not quite like any other emotion available to a human being. It is like a lightning bolt in the dark; just for an instant, one sees everything clearly.
But it has to be the real thing for the magic to work. There are far too many bundles of vaguely rhyming cliches out there masquerading as poetry and giving it a bad name. Just look at former Beatle Paul McCartney’s recently published volume of sentimental doggerel. Furthermore, even the real thing often fails to work its magic, or else works selectively and unpredictably. One of the 20th century’s best poets, Philip Larkin, could not stand the poetry of Milton and Spenser and was none too keen on Chaucer, either. And finally, a good poem is rarely “easy,” even when it looks as simple as a nursery rhyme. It calls for time and patience and, usually, getting by heart — at least in part. It may be Good for You, but unfortunately it is likely to be Hard to Understand.
For all these reasons, the feel-good NPM approach to poetry (poems on breakfast-time TV, poems in buses) is misguided. Popularizing something, anything, means putting out the lowest-common-denominator stuff. But poetry is not a product to be mass-marketed, and advertising won’t make people want more of it. Only the right kind of teaching will do that, and it can’t be accomplished in one month a year. Getting children to like poetry means first giving them the tools they need to understand it: knowledge of words and syntax, with gradual, steady exposure to increasingly sophisticated usage, prose as well as poetry. They won’t get that from NPM posters in the school library. They will only get it from years of painstaking groundwork in the language. Without it, most good poems will remain about as intelligible to them as ancient Greek.
It might not matter so much if the rest of the world weren’t also getting busy devoting days, months or years to the advancement of this or that worthy cause. Just last month, poets around the globe gathered in response to a U.N. appeal for a yearlong “dialogue among civilizations” in 2001. The organizer hoped the festival of readings would “capture what the U.N. stands for — internationalism.” Such pabulum is of course the very opposite of what a good poem stands for — originality of perception and freshness of expression. But it is pretty much what you get when you squeeze complex things like history and poetry into easy-to-swallow, calendar-coded capsules.
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