Trolling around Paris during its rainy days on the metro, I've begun to notice things that remind me of home.
I saw these posters, and I couldn't help it: bile started, just a little, to rise in my mouth.
It's not that the poems I was seeing in the subway were particularly bad (except for the one in the voice of the marionette. I HATE that poem). In fact, I enjoyed doing a little extra translation over the course of my commute. What I didn't enjoy is how much they reminded me of National Poetry Month.
Though it's many months off in the distance, I've always despised National Poetry Month. The fact that poetry gets a month at all in the nation's "cultural calendar" is clearly a dismal sign. If you want to see where you truly stand in the world or in America, look to this calendar to see how much time has been allotted us all to celebrate your particularly "unique" social impoverishment. Novels, for instance, are not given a month, not even a week, and I don't even think they get a day, as people still read them and seem to care when they get published. Screenwriting, too, gets nada, though, weirdly, Copywriting, as do Towels, gets a day. African Americans are given a month, as is Black Music, the Earth and Women's History. Actually, women rack up a huge number of days, thus closing in on or possibly surpassing African Americans, as there are all sorts of other weeks and days that clearly have some sad affiliation with being female, such as Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation Day (and what a fun day THAT is to celebrate), Human Trafficking Day, Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Rape Awareness Week, and of course the International Day for Women. GLBT Awareness gets a month, most mental health disorders are given a week, and Asian American history too gets a week. (Though with all those news stories breaking about how Asian Americans are having a tough time getting into Ivy League schools because their test scores and GPA's are good enough they could fill every place in each entering class, perhaps this scheduled event will change. If I'm correct about the link between perceived lack of cultural power and "cultural awareness," then Asian American History will now probably shrink from a week to a day, maybe less. Something like "Asian American Smoking Break" perhaps.)
To put this in perspective, National Poetry Month shares the same dates during which we are also urged to make ourselves aware of the horrors of Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Basically, anything that our nation has pathologized or continues to pathologize, whether rightly or wrongly, is given pride of place in this calendar of regrets (to steal a beautiful title from my colleague, Lance Olsen). Thus what we are telling each other, annually, is that poetry is our Special Olympics of literature, established not so much out of any personal joy we might collectively get out of a vigorous rondelle (fnah, fnah), but out of the dismal fear that this previously renowned and ancient art (equivalent to lace tatting, perhaps, or building Christmas ornaments out of pinecones) might one day disappear entirely, when the last of its practitioners, out of cultural indifference, expires.
So you can see why I might hate this. Why, perhaps, most poets I know sneer at National Poetry Month, even as we all dutifully sign on to all its enriching activities to promote cultural awareness of blahblahblahlbahoh my god I just fell asleep writing this sentence.
Because why DOES poetry need a month, exactly? Why is it being pathologized (implicitly, in this fashion) at all?
Because this crap doesn't make any money.
This, to me, is the sad reason it has a month. America feel sorry for poets, and poetry, because the work isn't lucrative. In that, it lacks that particular cultural caché. So we do what we think will boost its national sales, which is have a few radio programs devoted to it, print up some tote bags, find a few nice haiku and slap them all over the back end of a bus.
Because if people can trust the back end of a bus to help them find their DUI lawyer, OF COURSE they're going to rely on it for their next poetry book-of-the-month.
To me, this is all less about getting people to like or enjoy poetry as it is to make them feel as if they are suddenly users of poetry: that because they are in poetry's proximity, they are being enriched by the experience. The bus is enriched by the poetry, the commute is enriched by the poetry, we are all--as humans--made better by presence of poetry in our lives.
This may be the case, and perhaps I'm just being a snob about this whole thing, but actually I don't want my commute to be tainted with the expectation of moral or cultural improvement. I don't think that's what poetry is for, and I think that the way that poetry generally gets used during National Poetry Month carries with it this faintest whiff of intellectual bullying. Something like: Read this cute little fragment of a poem, you sloth-brained train monkey, because poetry is GOOD for you, it's GOOD for you, you cultural skid-mark!
I may be overreacting. Obviously, it's better to have some art somewhere than no art anywhere, and if this is the best we can do then, well, SIGH, sign me up for some bumper stickers. But it saddens me to think that the vicious cycle of why we don't tend to like poetry is being continued via National Poetry Month: that is, what drives people away from poetry is the preciousness with which poetry is presented to them, the vague sense so many people have leaving poetry that they should FEEL SOMETHING DEEPER than perhaps what they really feel, that poetry isn't something so much to be read but to be measured--as a literate human--against. Poetry is intimidating, I think, for these very reasons. Poetry, in the classroom, can sometimes be treated a bit like a religious cult, with the same cultish need for conformity, the same sense of disappointment waiting to attend a student's lack of enthusiasm for a particular poem's style, period or author. I know: I've made this mistake too as a teacher. Which may be why a large number of readers have such a knee-jerk reaction to why some poems are "good" or "bad" to begin with, and treat cultural figures like Shakespeare with kid gloves. They already know what they're supposed to feel. But that's not the same thing as actually feeling it.
So on the surface then it might seem that putting a poem up next to a bunch of ads for nasal sprays would relax that particular context: it's Modernism at Work, guys, high art mixed with low, just like Eliot liked it. But in this case, I don't think it really blurs the distinction between the categories, but instead widens the chasm, because now there's that vaguely insulting insinuation that perhaps the reader of this poem would and could ONLY find a poem if it were on a train, a bus, a billboard. It's different finding the "low" art in the poem in the published volume: that, weirdly, might be a welcoming gesture, as the world of the reader gets to coexist also in the world of the poem. The poet acknowledges the existence of this world, thus the reader; the poet, in her own world, blurs that line, too. But on the bus, because it's there for a week or a month or maybe for as long as a year, it's a deliberate interruption. It's been brought here, like some low-ranking but chipper colonel in the English army, to help you rearrange your Elvis mug collection. For me, it doesn't erase boundaries of "high" and "low", it makes them more evident that the person who put that poem on a bus believes there IS, in fact, a "high" and "low" order of language, along with "high" and "low" orders of literacy, and you, chipmunk, are on the low end of the spectrum.
However, if I really probe the dark underbelly of why I don't like National Poetry Month, I have to admit also that I actually like that poetry doesn't get a lot of readers. It doesn't bother me so much that people aren't standing in line at midnight to buy the next edition that Faber and Faber puts out. In fact, though I've clucked publicly about how important it is for people to read poetry and think about poetry and buy poetry, in reality I don't really care. Part of this is due to my firm belief that poetry has always existed and will always exist: it didn't matter before that no one was signing a 6-figure book contract for a poetry collection; why should it now? Too, I just thrive on a certain kind of dark absence. Like a mold, perhaps, or a really poisonous mushroom. One of the things I love so much about poetry is how it walks that line between public speech and private utterance, and for me, I've always felt that there were certain things I couldn't say if I knew they were being read widely. That's how I knew those subjects were poems. Prose: I could care less who reads it. (Clearly. Look at this blog.) But poetry--especially poetry as it is seen in America, if this calendar is any indication--offers both writer and reader a deeply private space, one with minimal interruptions, and that, I've come to find, is something to be guarded and cherished.
Maybe that's what bothers the calendar makers: it's not the economy of poetry, stupid, it's the privacy, which in these trying days may be a far more powerful economy even than money.