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National Poetry Month cancelled

By Stephen Burt

[Editor’s Note: Note the date: This was an April Fool’s joke. National Poetry Month is alive and well. Visit the Academy of American Poets for details.]

CHICAGO, APRIL 1—April 2012 will mark the last-ever National Poetry Month. Started in 1996 and honored every April in the United States since then, the promotion—in which publishers, magazines, bloggers, and even bookstores devote space to poetry for one month out of the year—will end after 2012, says Katherine Pryde, press secretary for the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation. “We don’t need it any more,” Pryde explained. “Poetry—contemporary or centuries old, page-based or orally performed, ‘experimental’ or obviously traditional– has such a presence in every part of American life, every month of the year, that there’s just no point in devoting a single month to it.”

Pryde explains that executives and planners at the Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, the National Book Critics Circle, and the National Book Foundation in New York City, the National Poetry Foundation in Orono, and the Threepenny Review in Berkeley, California came to the same realization at their annual meeting in March, a meeting normally devoted to top-secret decisions about how to divvy up the year’s major awards.

“It started when President Obama delivered the State of the Union address in blank verse,” explained Scott Summers of the Academy, “and reporters proved able to distinguish his unrhymed pentameters—that is, blank verse– from free verse, which has neither rhyme nor meter.” Summers explained that news of the distinction spread rapidly through American readers, who had been unaware of it since 1913. Around the same time, he continued, “booksellers noticed that books by deceased poets had begun to outsell books about poets’ lives.” Sharp spikes in purchases, and in library demand, for poets such as Lorine Niedecker, James K. Baxter, and George Herbert, previously considered “poets’ poets’ poets’ poets’ poets,” also indicated a change, while high school teachers, according to education scholar Chas. Xavier of Salem Center, New York, began to supply their students with a respectable array of poetry, by dead and living writers, rather than falling back on the same few lines of Robert Frost (not that there’s anything wrong with Frost).

By the time of the March meeting, other signs of poetry’s changed status had bubbled up. Music journalists, folklorists, literary critics and classical scholars, according to media critic Jean Grey, had begun to treat rap artists—whose partially improvised, rhythmically elaborate work makes heavy use of rhetorical conventions and formulae—as oral poets, engaged in the same sort of enterprise as South Slavic tale-singers, Celtic bards and pre-Homeric rhapsodes, whose partially improvised, rhythmically elabored work made heavy use of rhetorical conventions and formulae. “I thought I was all alone in making that comparison,” noted professor John Miles Foley of the University of Missouri, “then there was this guy David Caplan, and then it went from a shocker to a commonplace.”

But the real shockers arrived on TV. First there was “America’s Best Memorizer,” whose ratings got the show moved from ESPN2 to ABC after a teenage Russian-American immigrant known only as “Peter” recited all of “Song of Myself” on camera, shocking millions of viewers with his interpretive accuracy, his strength of memory and his steely gaze. Then there was “Creative Writers Read,” now in its third season, a reality show in which college students majoring in writing demonstrate that they enjoy verse composed long before they were born. The show gave rise to a spinoff, “Creative Writers Translate,” whose contestants attempt to give accurate and yet emotionally rich English life to poems from Spanish, Hindi, Twi and other languages chosen by each week’s host.

Cable news channels got into the act as well. “It was when Fox News hosts began to assert that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays,” said Summers, “that our organizations began to wonder whether National Poetry Month was obsolete.” Summers added that Rachel Maddow would serve as a host on a planned MSNBC special, “Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays,” to be broadcast in July.

Pryde indicated that any resources made available by the end of National Poetry Month would be devoted to the troubled art of the feature film; an organization similar to the Academy of American Poets plans an annual month of attention to film, topped off with an awards show in Los Angeles, to take place in February each year. “Mothers of America,” Pryde concluded, “let your kids go to the movies. Get them out of the house so they won’t know what you’re up to; it’s true that fresh air is good for the body, but what about the soul?”

In response to a question from the Guardian newspaper, Summers explained that National Poetry Month will likely continue in Britain, where it is celebrated either in April or else in October, as far as anyone in the United States knows. “We don’t really read British poetry anymore,” she added. “So what they do is really up to them.”

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, April 2nd, 2012 by Stephen Burt.