When “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” detonates in the life of a suburban teenage girl, the nerves absorb it as they absorbed other pleasures–Duran Duran, The Brady Bunch, Diet Coke, whatever–while the mind gradually readjusts to a wider perspective, a larger frame of reference, more air. I’m speaking from my own experience, of course. Poetry opened up the world, but it didn’t revirginize my soul. Nor have I known anyone who traded in her brass American soul for an Athenian gold one upon first looking into Wallace Stevens or Elizabeth Bishop. That is why Frank O’Hara, who included everything in his poetry, is so valuable to my generation, and why his short, stylish manifesto “Personism” seems to obliterate the ponderous theorizing by every other New Critical, poststructural or Language poet of the past century. He understood that poetry is a pleasure like a lot of other pleasures, and our pleasures are highly subjective: “But how can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them. Improves them for what? for death? Why hurry them along? Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears)…. Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them, I like the movies too.” What juvenescent panache, what insouciance. Who wouldn’t want to emulate it?
Well, this is not the time to ask. It’s National Poetry Month, and that means cooked meat.
Inaugurated in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets as a public relations campaign, National Poetry Month has successfully worked to raise the profile of poetry books published in the month of April–that is, those lucky books that manage to distinguish themselves from the sudden crush of new titles (there were several hundred in the spring of 2007), growing every year in response to the narrow window of promotional opportunity.
De rigueur jokes about T.S. Eliot’s “cruelest month” notwithstanding, the National Poetry Month FAQ web page explains why April was chosen for the honor: “February is Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month, so April seemed a logical choice.” Let’s get this straight: logically, this would mean that poets are an oppressed group on a par with groups who have overcome the legal status of chattel. Needless to say, the ability of poets to interrogate their own earnest metaphors seems to have plunged in tandem with their prestige.
If, that is, one assumes that poetry’s prestige has plunged, because otherwise it wouldn’t need a national awareness campaign. But how does one square this lost prestige, this alarum, with the surge of new books every year? Or all the readings, podcasts, MFA graduates? A major publishing house’s poetry list used to function as a highbrow loss leader; but now that books are just another loss leader for big-box retail outlets, poetry–a loss leader of a loss leader–counterintuitively becomes the rallying point of a grassroots movement. Dozens if not hundreds of small presses and websites have sprung up in recent years. Against what looks like a collective American indifference, people who do read poetry don’t just respect it–they love it and often pay out of pocket to publish and distribute it. It might be more accurate to say they love what they love and hate what they don’t (“Odi et amo,” Catullus wrote. “Quare id faciam fortasse requiris“: I love and I hate–I know not why.) So, what the audience for poetry lacks in size it makes up for in passion, and it is this passion that reconciles opposites: a courtly art, yet one requiring the cheapest of materials; the highest art (Kant), yet one most ridiculed in popular culture (for a sample, check the Lindsay Lohan role in Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion); the least profitable art, yet a surprisingly politicized one.
So it almost makes sense–perversely–that in a time of prolific poetic production, the Academy invented a National Poetry Month using the language of victimhood. It gets the money flowing, shoring up what must be perforce a top-down infrastructure. National Poetry Month has a significant fundraising component to it. The Academy’s annual benefit at Lincoln Center features celebrities (Meryl Streep, Katie Couric, Candace Bushnell) reading their favorite chestnuts, paying homage to the idea that there’s something genuine beyond all this fiddle. The money from the 2006 gala, says the Academy’s website, “allowed us to donate one book of poetry to every middle-school classroom and library in New York City, plus thousands more to schools and libraries in New Orleans and other cities across the country.” What ogre would argue with that? And if the marketing juggernaut forces editors to run an extra poetry review or two–stealing precious column inches from more lucrative advertisers in the flash-in-the-pan book industry–what’s the harm? Maybe one new reader will mean one less busy cubicle in the Freedom Tower.
The two most famous critics of National Poetry Month, Charles Bernstein and Richard Howard, mounted arguments that are still fresh. In his 1999 essay “Against National Poetry Month As Such,” Bernstein echoed Frank O’Hara’s critique of poets as middle-aged mothers: “National Poetry Month is about making poetry safe for readers by promoting examples of the art form at its most bland and its most morally ‘positive.’ The message is: Poetry is good for you.” Howard, Pulitzer Prize winner and the former poetry editor at The Paris Review, told Newsweek in 2004 that poetry “is to be enjoyed ‘in secret’…not read in bites on billboards and subway placards.” (Howard was also the first to castigate National Poetry Month, in no uncertain terms, at the PEN Literary Awards ceremony the year it was inaugurated.) When two poets at opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum like the Language poet Bernstein and the mandarin Howard agree on something, one half suspects it’s a sign of the Apocalypse!
Actually, many suspect elitism. But elitism is a laughable charge to levy against an art that doesn’t require tickets or a premium cable subscription. No, what Bernstein and Howard are defending, from different standpoints, is poetry’s anarchism. To its devotees, the meaning of poetry lies as much in its intimacy and contrarianism as in any line in any book. From Sappho declaring, “Some say thronging cavalry, some say foot soldiers,/others call a fleet the most beautiful of/sights the dark earth offers, but I say it’s what-/ever you love best,” to Dickinson’s “Publication–is the Auction/Of the Mind of Man,” to O’Hara’s “if they don’t need poetry bully for them,” poets have a long history of shunning the limelight, valorizing the minor, refusing authority–even their own authority. How, then, are they going to compete with other entertainment brands in the marketplace?–did I say “brands?” I know poets who refuse to acknowledge that poetry can be defined, much less branded. The attempt to make little games of it–this April 17 is “Poem in Your Pocket Day,” for instance–trivializes it. “Select a poem you love during National Poetry Month then carry it with you to share with co-workers, family, and friends….” Isn’t this exactly the sort of farce that gave rise to the caricature of an out-of-touch narcissist foisting prefab “deep thoughts”–“cooked meat”–on a captive audience?
Novelist Marilynne Robinson said in the pages of Poetry magazine last year, “Major American poetry is the best philosophy ever written on this continent, and with good reason.” She’s right, and yet it seems we have to suffer a gimmick like “Poem in Your Pocket Day” to remind us why William Carlos Williams wrote almost a century ago: “The pure products of America/go crazy.”