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Biting the Hand…
National Poetry Month brings work to poets like me. I should be all for it. After all, what could be bad about getting the word out about poetry. Hoorah for our team(s)! But I confess that every time it rolls around, my heart sinks a little. I get tired of all the soul-searching around poetry (Why doesn’t anyone read us? Why aren’t we important? Why would people rather watch Lost than read Dante? Should we be more accessible? Should we be more obscure? Why doesn’t everyone love us!) Because it seems to me the truth is poetry gets way more coverage than any other art. Is there a national symphonic composers month? How many contemporary painters can you name? Sculptors? What about National Choreography Week? Is there any other art that spends nearly this much time and energy complaining that it doesn’t get enough attention? Really, people, I think we’ve got it good.
And that’s just the arts. Look at journalism. I’m married to a journalist. We know a lot of foreign correspondents, people who, for very little pay or recognition, go to awful parts of the world in the midst of awful events, at risk to life and limb, to bring back crucial information. Foreign correspondent, though, appears to be a much more endangered profession than poet. Newspapers are dying, and even the newspapers that are scraping by are cutting back on actual reporters. Fewer newspapers mean fewer subscribers to the Associated Press, which means, in turn, fewer reporters on the ground. When the earthquake in Haiti hit, there was one foreign correspondent in the country. And I’m not just talking foreign correspondents, I’m talking investigative reporters at home, keeping an eye on corruption and injustice. Sure, most Americans now get their “news” over the internet, but these sources in turn are based largely on newspaper resources. And no, moving on-line does not immediately cut the real costs of journalism. The main costs to a newspaper are not producing the physical paper itself, but paying the staff to do the reporting. Increasingly, journalists are expected to work almost for free, as a way of keeping a foot in the profession. Many journalists we know feel their tenure is limited—they are eventually going to have to find work in another field if they are to make a living.
Journalism and prose seem to have been born together—I’m thinking of Herodotus, who interviewed eye-witnesses of the Persian war, travelled widely and reported what he had experienced and what he heard. Maybe journalism is the opposite of poetry, which is “news that stays news.” But what I have learned from our journalist friends is that they share with poets (I hope I can speak for the poets here) a passion for truth, for communicating what they see and hear, for the importance of words (and pictures) in changing opinions and lives. I would gladly trade National Poetry Month for National Journalism Month. Poetry has always been around, and will always be around, in one way or another, with or without the boosterism. But journalism is truly endangered. Just because we stop hearing about the trouble spots in the world doesn’t mean they have ceased to exist. We have just ceased caring.