Cruel April: Does poetry need its own month? (Does anything?)
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
but all I could do was to
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.