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National Poetry Month

By Kwame Dawes

There are some threads that I keep meaning to tackle but keep forgetting to tackle because of time and distraction. Perhaps they will somehow become connected as I tackle them. I remember declaring anthologies to be the enemies of poets and I am kind of proud of this statement, not for its truth, but for is provocations. At some level, I still think this is completely true. In the very specific context of my argument, it is true. As long as there are anthologies, teachers in grade school will not encourage their students to borrow or buy single-authored books of poems. People even call poetry collections anthologies. Technically there is some truth in that naming, but you see my point. Of course it is true that anthologies can open the door to the work of poets we would normally not discover. So yes, the anthology can be something of a trailer, a billboard, a short advertisement, a promotional flier for poetry collections and or poets, but that is trying to eke out some good from the already bad. What I failed to mention is that I have edited several anthologies and I am actually doing one now. I do make a distinction between those anthologies that are themed and that seem to try and make some coherent point about poetry. Themed anthologies are quite different from canonical anthologies. Finally, having said all of that, I like to look at anthologies. I like to see who is in them. I like to be in them to see who I am set beside. But ultimately, I can’t say I am convinced that anthologies are not a dicey proposition especially in their role as the killers of single-authored book collections.


I am starting to see a few effects of this blogging business. I am becoming opinionated in ways that I have always suspected when I have seen it in others. I don’t think I am changing, but now that I have to say something, I somehow manage to exhaust all small talk and then find myself only able to give opinions. I don’t know if this is going to continue. I worry about this.
But now that I have admitted that I have opinions and that they will emerge here, I will say that I do like National Poetry Month. I say this because I don’t think I can honestly say that I don’t like National Poetry Month, and because since I don’t dislike National poetry Month and since it is, after all, POETRY month, and since I like poetry and think poetry is important, and since I know that this is the month when people should pay attention to poetry, and since I OUGHT to like National Poetry Month for these reasons, I think it is fair to say that I do like National Poetry Month.
But I don’t look forward to April. Not really. I mean I like April partly because of the weather, partly because for some time I enjoy the feeling of accomplishment when I have managed to get my taxes done on time, partly because it is close to the end of the academic semester, and partly because the dogwoods are in bloom at that time. But never because it is National Poetry Month, and this is somewhat embarrassing because it must mean that I don’t look forward to the bacchanal of poetry that is supposed to happen at that time of the year.
As it happens, though, I do indulge somewhat in the spirit of that month. For the past four or five years, April has been the month for the announcement of the winners of our poetry prizes for the Poetry Initiative, and has been the occasion for at least one grand gathering of poets from around the state to celebrate the winners of our Single Poem contest and our Poetry Book Prize. We must have had the month in mind when we planned things that way. And since there is some value in being able to say to the media, “You know, it is National Poetry Month, and we are poets and doing poetry things, so you should have poets on television and on radio and in the papers doing poetry things because that opening line, ‘April is the cruelest month, said T.S, Eliot, but as poets in South Carolina are showing, there is nothing cruel about the celebration of poetry during this season of romance and rejuvenation’—it can go on for a while. Picture our roving morning reporter who has to be up early and more than that, has to convince media hungry organizations to get up at five o’clock with him to shoot some ridiculous footage of them going through their paces as if they do this every day at that time of the morning—so picture him with mic in hand, moving closer to an animated (but still slightly sleepy) poet performing (without script) a hot new poem in sultry tones—picture the reporter speaking in a low voice like a golf commentator on the greens, describing the poet and the poetry scene as he would describe a new special animal in the local zoo. To die for. But this is what Poetry Month offers us.
So all this is cynical. And I do believe my cynicism is not warranted. After all, would we rather not have a National Poetry Month? What would that say about our society? At least during National Poetry Month, a lot of people have the chance to think about poetry. I remember, a few years ago, getting into the spirit of the month and drafting a list of things I thought people could do to celebrating National Poetry Month:
1. Pastors would quote from at least one poet during each Sunday sermon during the month.
2. All home room teachers at schools, supervisors of people at work, and generally anyone who can force their subordinates to have to sit through whatever they desire, should begin each morning with the reading of a haiku.
3. Legislators and politicians and public speakers would read a short poem before every speech instead of telling one of their trade mark jokes. The poems can’t rhyme, however and must have as little to do with the subject of their speech as possible.
4. Everyone should treat a working poet to lunch at least once during the month.
5. News magazines, radio shows, and television shows should hire a poet to give a minute long verse commentary during the month (the BBC has done that quite a few times)
6. All businesses should employ ($1500.00) a poet-in-residence to write about the business give creativity workshops, and have a public reading of poems for the staff and friends of the business. Yes, pizza joints, dry-cleaners, telecommunication firms, sports arenas, real estate agencies, churches, department stores—you name it, they are game.
7. Poets should write poems, photocopy them and leave copies in doctor’s waiting rooms, carwash wait lounges, bars, park benches, restaurants, etc. Someone will find the poems and be enriched.
8. Hold at least one day-long poetry vigil during which hundreds of people get together to read a really long poem like The Iliad or The Odessey or Leaves of Grass or The Book of Psalms.
9. Everyone must buy at least one single authored book of poems. They do not have to read it. Just need to buy it and place it on a shelf, in a toilet or on a coffee table. Someone my stumble across it unsuspectingly and you never know…
10. All public buildings must purchase an appropriately-lengthed poem, have it beautiful typeset, print it on lovely paper, frame it elegantly and have it on display at a prominent place in the lobby along with the commissioned art that is already there.
These are just ten things that can be done. I am sure some of you who are reading this blog can muster up some additional ones. The task is for everyone to do at least one of these, or at least convince someone to do one of these.
I can already hear the howls of disapproval and anguish coming from the protectors of genuine poetry as they start to imagine the awful poetry that will be peddled around, displayed and spoken during the month. I have to admit that this whole plan might be something of an annoying disaster to many of us. But the necessary news is that the protectors of taste in poetry do not own poetry. They cannot ban Hallmark Greeting cards by fiat. They can’t legislate that aspiring poets do not center their poems with the stroke of a mouse. They can’t stop folks from writing roses are red to each other. The most they can do is hope they will be the ones approached to provide a great poem for the rotunda of some multinational corporation building. Free up Poetry, People! Long Live Poetry!
Lord, that was tiring. (smile)

Comments (3)

  • On April 11, 2007 at 10:36 am Lisa Hunter wrote:

    Here’s my problem with anthologies: Too often, the editor chooses a certain type of poem, with a certain type of voice or outlook, so that the poets seem almost indistinguishable from one another (even if their other work is very different). If my first impression of a poet is, “Gee, he/she sounds just like everybody else,” I’m sure not going to buy a solo collection.

  • On April 11, 2007 at 12:38 pm j r lee wrote:

    Remember Brodsky’s suggestion that poetry (anthologies or single-authored works or individual poems) be left in hotel rooms, like Gideon Bibles?
    I think that if people could HEAR more poetry, on radio, in waiting rooms, or in TV fillers, it could help more persons to appreciate poems. Following Dana Gioia’s ideas (1990) efforts should always be made to keep poetry in the public sphere. Good poetry, well presented, will I think, usually go down well with the average listener. Many persons seem to attach some kind of mystery to poetry, assuming that it is not for them or it is beyond their ability to comprehend. There probably is need for some de-mystifying. Well-organised National Poetry Months can help.

  • On April 11, 2007 at 2:12 pm Brian Hadd wrote:

    And epics are resistant when the need for separation becomes too legible like anthologies are. Epic poetry is whole.
    The Hood Company


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, April 10th, 2007 by Kwame Dawes.