There’s a particularly lovely bit in Stephen Colbert’s interview with Elizabeth Alexander the night after the inauguration.
Colbert: [mock-pathetic] “Poems aren’t true, right? They’re made up, right…because I recently read this thing called The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock which is about a guy, you know, in his mid-40s like I am, and he’s facing mortality and he’s got a sense that no matter what his achievement is in life, he’s never really gonna be great. That’s not true, right?
Alexander: [pitch-perfectly playing the straight woman] A poem should be in some way emotionally true…Prufrock might speak to you because there’s something in the poem that resonates, that feels true to you. And that’s how people connect with poems.
Colbert: [mock-distressed] He says ‘I’ve heard the mermaids singing each to each/ I do not think that they will sing to me.’ They—they’re still singing to me, though, aren’t they?
Alexander: [mock-maternally] They are if you want them to be.
Prufrock is a comically-delivered tragic poem, of course, and Colbert/Alexander’s comedy on the subject had just enough, well, emotional truth in it, to make it more than poet-insider wisecracking. Maybe it’s a sign of how deprived poets are of any kind of mainstream recognition, but this actually seemed to be the most serious, and seriously informative, non-poetry-world exchange on poetry in a long time. (More informative than many in the poetry world too, come to think of it.)
In any case, it’s a Prufrock moment. Maybe it’s always a Prufrock moment. The Academy of American Poets recently unveiled this year’s National Poetry Month poster.
AAP’s own press release calls the image “Daring”—by which they may mean not stinking of Uplifting Messages of Poetical-Educational Opportunity for the Benighted. I don’t know if the poster is daring, really --the word is thrown around quite a bit—but the Paul Sahre design certainly is startling, elegant, and something of a departure from past Academy efforts.
The poster presents a famous line from T.S. Eliot’s (arguably) best poem, written, apparently, by a finger on a fogged window. Already I've heard it called creepy, wonderful, childish, eye-catching, cheap and evocative. It is being talked about--and who doesn’t think that’s a good thing?
Several people said they were glad to see this image rather than a field of flowers. Actually, the Academy has generally been hipper than that. Past years’ selections are viewable here. Ten years ago the AAP's NaPoMo poster featured a Jasper Johns map of America and Whitman’s “I hear America Singing”; other years presented scrupulously inclusive collages of photos of American poets. But the poetry quotes, though often from great poems, tended to be relentlessly upbeat, and the words themselves tended to get lost next to the image. That stands to reason--design people are image people, not word people. But Sahre has made his image out of words, and that makes a difference.
It's great to see the Academy coming out in favor of poetry’s ability to disturb rather than console. That the line is written in dripping—therefore disappearing—letters, letters created by wiping something away, on a window that’s translucent but not transparent, only adds to the poster’s impact and complexity. This could be seen as a challenge to poets--disturb the world! Or to audiences: Disturb yourself by reading (more) poems.
It’s rare to see poetry treated in a complicated and grown-up way.
Daisy Fried is the author of Women's Poetry: Poems and Advice (2013), My Brother is Getting Arrested Again (2006) and She Didn’t Mean to Do It (2000), all from University of Pittsburgh Press. She was awarded the Editors' Prize for Feature Article from Poetry magazine in 2009.