For the past twenty years the Academy of American Poets, with support from a number of big-name publishers and bookstores, has christened the month of April “National Poetry Month.” The Academy now claims that National Poetry Month is the largest literary celebration in the world. Each year it amasses plenty of support, due in some part I imagine to the simplicity and ease with which one can engage with poetry. If you’re running short of ideas, the Academy’s website suggests memorizing poems, showing other people your favorite poems and even asking your representatives in local government to issue proclamations in support of National Poetry Month (that last one is very real). It also suggests specific books to buy and particular essays to write, quite a number of which lead back to the Academy of American Poets.
I find it pretty difficult to think about National Poetry Month from a critical standpoint. Poetry is important to me in a variety of ways. Beyond the usual roles we ascribe to it (such as: lyricism, expressivity, passion, emotion), poetry can also sustain and cultivate us. It’s definitely done so for me, and I’ve seen it become a solace, friend and guide for a lot of people. As someone who never really felt any kind of emotional relationship with images until I grew older, language played a vital part in how I understood myself and others. I felt an intuitive connection with it. So, to hear language used not just beautifully but also carefully, energetically and creatively meant better comprehending who I was and how I interacted with the world.
However, despite my love for poetry, I’m also a realist. Poetry has never ended wars. T.S. Eliot didn’t invent the vaccine for polio; Emily Dickinson didn’t conquer apartheid. If I write a poem, it might be an act of understanding, but it won’t translate into anything one can sell or use to save the planet from the oncoming ecological collapse. While I don’t agree with Auden’s claim that “poetry does nothing,” I would certainly acknowledge that the reasons we usually respect poetry don’t accord it much real social value. It remains confined to classrooms and workshops, and poetry is still primarily identified as what we encounter in these environments
One of my main issues with National Poetry Month is that it doesn’t encourage us to think differently about poetry and its possibilities. Why, for example, does National Poetry Month focus on “literary” poetry, the kind which is published in expensive books and journals? Where are all the other poetic practices that people participate in in their daily lives? This type of celebration becomes inherently exclusionary as we begin to consider how things like aesthetic standards and conventions weigh on our definition of “poetry.” We can’t just let a collective of organizations and publishers decide what makes the cut. If we think that poems must always articulate something beyond the scope of ordinary speech, we won’t recognize and respect only one form or style of this articulation. I can’t find any mention of hip-hop or non-American poetry in the midst of the festivities, nor do I notice any genuine acknowledgment of the new and exciting ways poets today are destroying and reforming my conceptions of language.
By trying to make itself profitable, poetry has rendered itself an establishment. This is an easy way for poetry to become especially useless. Institutions draw boundaries in order to define themselves. Sure, that fact alone isn’t something inherently harmful, but with regards to poetry, the borders created by institutions poison its reach and potential. National Poetry Month is essentially a reinforcement of those borders. Instead of pushing us to explore the value of poetry in countless communities and cultures, it makes us think that poetry is static and vulnerable: that it requires attention and protection.
Once again, this action in and of itself is not a bad thing. While “Women’s History Month” and “Black History Month” do possess some of the same problems (they become just another way for institutions to ruin our conception of these things), I would definitely say our understanding of these histories is at risk and deserves special attention. But poetry doesn’t suffer from a lack of exposure. It really doesn’t. Rather, it suffers from a lack of interest and belief in its value to our everyday lives. We shouldn’t think of it as mired in inaccessible sentiments and lofty artifice. Language and words undeniably affect us, whether they’re spoken or read or sung. We don’t need a corporatized culture parade to market this. All that does is present us with a cage, even if it is an appreciative one.
Poetry can help and challenge people, but it can never accomplish these tasks just one month out of the year with your local Penguin House affiliate. You have to let it live and think with you. I would never prescribe any practices. But I do want to sincerely encourage anyone who reads this to uncover the multitude of voices and minds which exist in this world. Everywhere, everyday, people try to put their energies and feelings into words. Maybe you might enjoy some of these efforts to perform the impossible.
Stephen Meisel is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Appearances appears alternate Fridays this semester.