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.