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Cruel April: Does poetry need its own month? (Does anything?)

April 7, 2010

Harryette Mullen: Who says poetry doesn't pay?

When T.S. Eliot opened his famous modernist poem “The Wasteland” with the line, “April is the cruelest month,” he did not have National Poetry Month in mind. But only because it wasn’t invented until 1996. Ask the nation’s students, being force-fed poetry this month in schools around the nation. Cruel April, I’m sure they’d agree.

Indeed, if you google the words “poetry month,” most of what comes up is classroom help for teachers. “Books to Enjoy for National Poetry Month,” at lehighvalleylive.com are all for children. Scholastic.com, a publisher of children’s books, urges teachers: “Bring poets into your classroom.”

Even The New York Times has this: “11 Ways to Celebrate National Poetry Month,” all of which are pedagoical suggestions. Pity those poor students, pinned in their seats by “Seasons Greetings from Robert Frost,” or “Mary Oliver’s Provincetown: A Poet’s Landscape.”

Not to disparage teachers, and their hard job of instilling understanding of (let alone love for) poetry in their squirming charges — just as the sap is starting to rise, and the long, lazy lawns of summer to beckon.

Some few adult poetry activities can be found. Like, for example, the American Academy of Poets, which, according to The New York Times, has “enlisted some of Manhattan’s finer mixologists to develop some poetry-themed cocktails.

You might think, given the vast numbers of poets (and other writers) whose lives and work were blighted by alcohol abuse, that encouraging drinking would be the last thing the American Academy of Poets would want to do. But no. Instead, you can sample various cocktails, named for poems, at tony New York watering holes.

At least  the Times has the wit to cast an ironic eye on the project with the headline: “April is the Drunkest Month,” and an excerpt from one of our greatest boozed-up poets, Charles Bukowski, whose “The Suicide Kid” opens thusly:

I went to the worst of bars
hoping to get
killed.
but all I could do was to
get drunk
again.

I don’t know about you, but school is where I learned to hate poetry, something I’ve been unlearning ever since. On the other hand, does officially devoting a month to any cause help or hurt? Does Black History Month (February) promote understanding of the contributions of African Americans? Or is it just another kind of ghetto? Does any litter bug take note that April is Keep America Beautiful Month? (April is also National Anxiety Month, National Humor Month, National Welding Month, National Garden Month and –ta-da! — International Guitar Month).

To be fair, if we turn to poets.org, website of the same American Academy of Poets I mocked above, we find a sober and not altogether useless range of poetry suggestions and ideas (although “Poem in your Pocket Day”–April 29–sounds faintly absurd). Better yet, click on a link for individual states, and you find all kinds of activities and featured poets.

The Florida state page opens with an excerpt from Elizabeth Bishops’ “Florida:”

The state with the pretties name,
the state that floats in brackish water,
held together by mangrave roots…
It includes a section on Edmund Skellings, Florida’s exceptional poet laureate,  links to featured Florida poets (and we claim some good ones: A.R. Ammons, Donald Justice, Nathaniel Mackey, Campbell McGrath, among others), writing programs, literary journals, a calendar of events and more.

And by coincidence (or probably not), Harryette Mullen won the $50,000 Jackson Poetry Prize last Friday. At 56, Mullin is known for “socially and politically conscious verse” in collections such as Recyclopedia and Sleeping with the Dictionary.

Oh, all right. I guess I should stop snarking and applaud anything that promotes poetry and poets, even if it’s National Poetry Month. You can find samples of Mullin’s work at PoemHunter.com, but here’s a taste from a poem called “Sapphire’s lyre styles:”

you’ve had my thrills
a reefer a tub of gin
don’t mess with me I’m evil
I’m in your sin

clipped bird eclipsed moon
soon no memory of you
no drive or desire survives
you flutter invisible still

Somehow I think Bukowski would approve, no matter what month it is.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2010 11:40 am

    Until it is part of the National diet,I do not pity students force-fed poetry. Likewise, to rectify an imbalance (in race, gender, education) I see no harm in symbolically dedicating a month to a cause. I’m, of course, biased when it comes to the considered prose that is poetry, but I Believe:

    “It is difficult to get the news from poems. Yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there”

    William Carlos Williams

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 7, 2010 12:21 pm

      Yes, and as I heard once at the Key West Literary Seminar — maybe from, or about, John Ciardi? I can’t remember — but as I once heard at the Key West Literary Seminar: Poetry is the news that stays news. I’ve used this line often since, most recently in January, when I introduced Stephen Dobbins (who, conveniently, was briefly a newspaper reporter as a very young man) at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival.

      And yes, though with a sigh, I agree that rectifying imbalance (race, gender, education –whatever) is justifiable cause for devoting a month to raise awareness for this or that. But it is the bluntest and also the dreariest of instruments. As someone who believes affirmative action is still a useful and necessary tool, I cannot oppose Black History Month. But neither can I fail to notice that it is also a kind of ghettoization. The nation gives lip service to African-American history and achievement every February, after whiich we are free to ignore it as irrelevant (not REAL history) the rest of the year. A problem without a solution, far as I can see.

      • April 7, 2010 12:39 pm

        Again, agreed about it being the ‘bluntest and also the dreariest of instruments’. But that is what is needed for building foundations. Fine, and subtle tools come in later.

  2. alexis permalink
    April 7, 2010 11:57 am

    Having poetry forced on me just made me dislike it more. However, I did not predilection for poetry to begin with. The Count of Monte Cristo was forced on me too, and I ended up loving it. I think you either have the poetry gene or you don’t. I guess the question is, does poetry have enough inherent benefit that kids should be forced to learn it?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 7, 2010 12:29 pm

      No one can claim to be educated without a grounding in –at least — English poetry. All literature was once poetry. Before the novel, which goes back, in the West anyway, to the 18th century (!) and the work of Samuel Richardson, Daniel Dafoe, and (my fave) Henry Fielding. For the millennia before that, long narratives were composed as epic poems — Gilgamesh, The Iliad, Beowulf, etc., etc., etc. And though I am first and foremost a prose lover myself, I readily acknowledge that the heart and spirit and music and life of the language (and probably any language) resides in its poetry. So, yes, the inherent benefit of forcing poetry on children is sufficient. To do otherwise would be the equivalent of letting them reach adulthood without learning basic arithmetic or science or history…

  3. April 7, 2010 12:12 pm

    Of course, Alexis, one hopes against hope that teachers force-fed choice morsels… But, yes, I think poetry does have an inherent benefit for kids in that it exposes them early to mental play and can teach them to better appreciate (beauty and the natural world). Later on, they are less apt to destroy what they learned to care for -whether it is language, one another or the world.

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 7, 2010 12:29 pm

    Yahia, I could not have said it better myself. And probably not half so well.

    • April 7, 2010 12:35 pm

      And I feel the same way Chauncey about this: “the heart and spirit and music and life of the language (and probably any language) resides in its poetry”

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        April 7, 2010 2:09 pm

        It’s a truth universally acknowledged, though it takes us prose lovers a little hard to see (and hear).

  5. Candice permalink
    April 7, 2010 1:44 pm

    Hip hip hooray for Poetry Day!!

    When I taught high school English, I would have the students bring in their music during the poetry units. Somewhere in some of the lyrics, we’d always be able to find good poetry that even appealed to them.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 7, 2010 2:11 pm

      That’s a great idea, Candice. I think one that that’s been lost, or at least muted, in the evolution from oral poetry to poetry on the page, is the musicality of poetry. It’s more subtle than song-music, and songwriting is a different craft from the writing of poetry (though, of course, related). Anything that can restore the music to poetry, or revive modern ears to hear the music poetry, is a boon to all concerned.

  6. Connie permalink
    April 7, 2010 2:31 pm

    OK, I’m going to do it. I’m going to hang myself out to dry.

    I don’t like poetry.

    I love reading. There are few – very few – things I love more. I love language and wordplay and images that take your breath away. But most poetry to me has always been a terrible slog.

    Every now and then I read or hear something that threatens to change my mind. A stray line of Emily Dickinson or Bukowski. Or seeing the amusing Billy Collins 2 years ago at book fair and thinking, wow, he’s FUNNY; I should re-evaluate. But for the most part poetry is not something I will ever choose to read. I’m just not interested. Can’t you tell me a story instead?!

    Is it because I was force-fed the wrong things as a child? Maybe. Is it because a lot of poetry is simply NOT THAT GOOD? (Some of it isn’t.) I don’t know. I just know what I don’t like, and poetry is it.

    All right. Now change my mind.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 7, 2010 2:51 pm

      Connie, I have to concede I feel much as you do. My greatest reading pleasure comes from narrative (although I’ve loved plenty of nonfiction books, even ones heavy on exposition — go figure). To me, a lot of poetry sounds intolerably precious, and no doubt a lot of it is. But I’ve learned, mainly by knowing poets and poetry lovers, that I have to slow my mind down, I have to be willing to read a poem at least three times, before passing judgment on it. Once to get acquainted, once to find the sound and the rhythm (the music), and once for the sense. I mean, I finally realize why my favorite high school English book was titled Sound and Sense!

      The first poem I really, really loved (and it’s still my all-time favorite for reasons I’ll explain endlessly to anyone who wants to know) is Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” Partly it’s because this is a sex poem — a highly elevated and elegant sex poem, but a sex poem nonetheless, the gist of which is, “We’re all gonna die, sugar, so what are you saving it for?” I love that, I love to know that people thought like that in the 17th century. But I also love it for its music. Read this poem out loud and it sings!

      In time I’ve come to appreciate — and even to enjoy (imagine that!) — poets like Frank O’Hara, Lord Byron, Robert Frost, Stephen Dobbins, Carolyn Forche, Kim Addonizio, Martin Espada, James Tate (yay!) and others. But still, I have to stumble across poets and poetry. When I sit down to read, I always reach for a book of prose first.

      Sad. I know. But Connie, you are not alone.

  7. rachel permalink
    April 7, 2010 3:25 pm

    I love poetry. I do not like force fed poetry. I didn’t like when we were taught poems in high school, because we were taught what they meant, instead of allowing us to have our own interpretations. We were taught that there was a single interpretation, a right interpretation which is never the case with a poem.

    It is kind of silly to have months dedicated to things. I mean, every month should be poetry month. Every month should be black history month. But be that as it may, I do get the idea of using a month to talk about a single thing in order to draw attention to it. It makes sense. Look at us, talking about poetry here, why is that? Because of Poetry Month.

    I think the smartest thing that Billy Collins ever did was his Poetry 180 project. The whole idea is that teachers just expose their students to a poem a day. Not tell them what it means. Not even force them to pay attention to it. Just expose them to it and see what happens. Personally, I do not like Collins’s poetry, but I do like the poem that opens the 180 project:

    Introduction to Poetry
    Billy Collins

    I ask them to take a poem
    and hold it up to the light
    like a color slide

    or press an ear against its hive.

    I say drop a mouse into a poem
    and watch him probe his way out,

    or walk inside the poem’s room
    and feel the walls for a light switch.

    I want them to waterski
    across the surface of a poem
    waving at the author’s name on the shore.

    But all they want to do
    is tie the poem to a chair with rope
    and torture a confession out of it.

    They begin beating it with a hose
    to find out what it really means.

    • Candice permalink
      April 7, 2010 7:22 pm

      I love that, Rachel. Thank you.

  8. Connie permalink
    April 7, 2010 3:30 pm

    I do agree that anyone who can use “but at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near” as a pick-up line really deserves to get the girl. That’s a great example of why poetry can work: It can remind us that people are really essentially the same (I am pretty sure I’ve dated more than my fair share of Andrew Marvels.)

    My father was an English teacher and loved – no, worshiped – Robert Frost. But beyond the occasional “Stay gold, Ponyboy!” joke, I have never warmed up to him. Maybe because his poems seem less personal to me. That’s why To His Coy Mistress is so damned good, I think: it’s personal. It’s sexy. It conveys an emotion we are all familiar with. It just seems to me that too many poems are all about the language and less about the emotion.

    That all said, Nikki Giovanni remains one of the best speakers I’ve ever seen at the book fair…

  9. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 7, 2010 3:46 pm

    You want sexy and personal, try the Song of Songs (yes, in the B-i-b-l-e). Nothing new under the sun, indeed.

  10. Tommy Smart permalink
    April 7, 2010 10:59 pm

    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm Of Life” has had a transformational effect on my life. 36 lines that have been sunlight piercing the darkest nights of mind.

    So I cannot slam poetry.

    Poets on the other hand are fair game. And the majority of them are such easy meat that it sometimes doesn’t feel sporting to deride them. Either they are so impressed with themselves they hover above us on a cloud of smug (South Park fans know where smug comes from), or they are so emo and morbid I just want to give them a Coke and tell them it’s okay to smile (also, not wearing your little sisters skinny jeans might help you smile a bit more).

    My favorite take on poets, from Peter Carey’s “Illywacker”:

    I learned a lot about poets and poetry that day
    and it is my contention that poets are weak shy people who will not look you in the eye.
    They are like Horace, scribbling spidery things in dark corners,
    frightened of their fathers, the law, and everything else.
    They are women who expect their husbands to be mind-readers.
    They are resentful and cruel.
    They spend sunny days planning dark revenges
    where they will punish those who wish them well.
    They sit like spiders in the centre of their pretty webs.
    They are harsh judges with wigs and buckled shoes.
    They place black caps upon their heads but let others attend the executions for them.

  11. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 8, 2010 12:32 am

    Oh, man, I know what you mean, but I got to say I’ve met a lot of poets who don’t fit that profile: Martin Espada, Richard Wilbur, Campbell McGrath, Stephen Dobbins, David Kirby, Kim Addonizio, Stephen Dobyns, Marie Howe, Thomas Lux, Mary Cornish, Richard Blanco (a personal fave!) –these are some tough people, I kid you not.

  12. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 8, 2010 12:33 am

    And of course by “Stephen Dobbins” I mean Stephen Dobyns.

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