Follow Harriet on Twitter
It’s National Poetry Month! I’m so sorry
So here I am blogging for National Poetry Month, a fact which will amuse friends of mine who know how ambivalent I am about this time. National Poetry Month is one of those collective self-shaming rituals we engage in annually to make up for the fact that, for the other 11 months of the year, we would all rather be watching the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. I don’t know how the rest of my fellow bloggers feel about this month, but each April I am reminded of Charles Bernstein’s essay, “Against National Poetry Month as Such,” in which he reminds us that the people and movements we treat with the least cultural capital and respect get the most time in our national calendar. Supposedly, National Poetry Month is all about redistributing levels of respect, and of course nothing says cultural respect for poetry like slapping a poster of a haiku on a bus next to the ad for the law firm promising it can get anyone out of a DUI.
Of course a month to celebrate poetry is, at heart, harmless. I love poetry, as do (I assume) all the folks blogging for Harriet. From what I can tell, a sudden interest in the poetic arts has hurt no one but the readers of Jewel. But I am bemused by the fact that, for a whole month otherwise highly intelligent people who are not in the least inclined to read poetry walk around in a tizzy, clutching poems to themselves that they’ve found on the internet, asking me, anxiously, whether they’re any good or, worse, whether there is any actual value to it, as if they’d just found some exotic IKEA allen wrench and are now trying to sell it at the Antiques Road Show. What surprises me about these questions is not that people want to know if what they like is any good (who eats a hamburger, say, and then asks the patron sitting next to him if its delicious?) but that most people seem to believe they have no ability to discern whether something they like has value or meaning to them.
Interestingly, the same thing happened after Richard Blanco read his poem for the presidential inauguration. A surprising number of university colleagues asked me whether I thought the poem could be considered good. That seemed baffling to me, because if someone who has devoted her entire career to the study of reading and writing doesn’t feel qualified to evaluate her own taste, to figure out whether she has understood a beautifully accessible narrative poem, then something, my friends, is rotten in the state of Denmark.
That said, I’m also sympathetic to these questions. The only other intellectual discipline that seems to produce so much free-floating anxiety as poetry seems to be quantum physics, and I suspect it’s because poetry reminds most people (including me) of their personal history of reading failures in the classroom. I’m not sure whether National Poetry Month eases or exacerbates this particular anxiety we have about reading poetry, or whether it further Disneyfies the notions we hold about the art. It’s fun! It rhymes! It can mean anything you want! Many poems are even about dogs! Such a celebration can’t hurt, I tell myself, but I suspect that it encourages, in its manic attempts to make us all “comfortable” with poetry, a Facebook-style “liking” of poems at the expense of showing people that they posses the skills with which they can actually read them.
I have a lot of friends, almost none of whom are writers, and though I love hanging out with poets (I’m one of the few people it seems who appreciates AWP since it’s the only week that validates my inclination to sit around at noon in a bar), the people closest to my in life have nothing to do with making art. This has worked out very well for me, since it gives me a lot of privacy. I’ve always thought of Wallace Stevens working at an insurance agency, happy in the fact that he could go home and live out his secret life as a poet. In my case, what I love about my life is that all day long I get to think and write and talk about poetry, and then go home and be treated like an insurance agent.
National Poetry Month changes all of this. My wonderful friends become suddenly very concerned that they have had, all along in their midst, a poet. Which, as we all know, means I must have long been economically discriminated against in sadly predictable ways. The only other thing comparable to it is when people discover I’m half-Chinese and then, in some sort of politically correct panic, begin listing all the best Asian restaurants in which they’ve eaten. In my world—and maybe in yours—I’ve found there are two things that “validate” art as a life choice: 1) if you are being offered a 401K-changing amount of money and 2) if your occupation ends up getting discussed on NPR.
A couple of months ago I was up for a poetry award that carried with it a cash prize of such obscene dimensions that it was written about in the papers. This meant that friends who had otherwise no interest in my life as a poet, no interest in my poetry or the poetry of others, suddenly began treating me like a fragile Etruscan bowl. “Oh God,” they would say, wide-eyed, as if just realizing it. “You’re a poet.” And then they would introduce me to their other friends in hushed voices approaching terror.
That period of time was scary for me, frankly, and stressful. Some of my friends went out and read my poems because the money had made them curious, and I saw that, because they loved me, they were struggling to say something positive or “understand it,” and some not understanding it got frustrated, and maybe a little angry at this surprising little gulf that language had opened up between us: they were smart, but they’d been taught to be nervous about reading poems, and they didn’t feel that they could read mine, and if they didn’t like them or understand them but they liked me, which “me” was more important? Which one was really their friend?
The answer to that is obvious, but I think this story demonstrates some of the wildly oscillating kinds of cultural validation we offer to poets and poetry that NPM reveals. We’re taught, simultaneously, to treat poetry as the purest, most elevated art at the same time we declare it culturally dead, with no practical or economic use. Both positions put poetry outside of our lives and our understanding, making it, essentially, invisible. And how can we read or appreciate what we don’t really see?
I suppose that is what NPM is meant to do: throw poems in the path of people who wouldn’t normally see them. But treated as sound bites, we see them the way we see the latest Dove commercial: as a kind of feel-good ad that is, in the end, still trying to sell you something to stick in your armpits. It doesn’t–and can’t– solve the problem that most concerns me, which is that the ways we treat poetry often exacerbates the larger problems that we have with reading now: that it is a purely passive, not active engagement with language, in which meaning “happens” if it relates to the personal life of the reader, or if it “moves” us. This really does have long-term cultural and political effects for us as a nation, because if we don’t believe we are in control of our reading—that we can parse a sentence to evaluate not only its pleasurable effects but to comprehend its arguments—then we are screwed.
Perhaps that is the true locus of my ambivalence about this month: because it is, in the end, less about poetry as it is about our growing awareness that there is a kind of reading that we don’t do much anymore, the kind that poetry might typify, but which is hardly limited to the art. It’s the kind of reading that reminds us that some part of using language requires that we be in active dialogue with words, sentences, punctuation—that we be aggressive with grammar. In that particular way, the act of reading—and, yes, maybe poetry itself—carries with it that whiff of the ethical that most writers, including myself, are both intrigued with and turned off by. Poetry reminds us that we have an ever-changing relationship with language. People during this month often ask if I’m worried about the death of poetry. Myself, I don’t believe in the death of poetry. I don’t care that it doesn’t make money or isn’t popular and doesn’t show up on billboards, and I have never worried for a second about poetry disappearing. What I do worry about, however, is the death of readers good enough to interact with it.