April is the Cruellest Month
Correct me if I’m wrong ( probably I am), but poetry is the only art form in the United States to have been handed its own month and given free reign to use it as it likes. There is no novel month, no painting month and no photography month.
On the other hand, poetry now finds itself competing with such important, non-artistic causes as “National Alcohol Awareness Month” (at least somewhat related), or “Stress Awareness Month.” (Have you ever met a poet who was not stressed-out?) Following that, April hosts “STD Awareness Month,” “Sexual Assault Awareness Month,” “National Child Abuse Prevention Month,” “National Cancer Control Month” and “National Autism Awareness Month.” An astonishing number of contemporary social issues have chosen April – April is everything from “National Grilled Cheese Month” to “Genocide Prevention and Awareness Month.”
There is no National Poetry Month is Portugal where I live and am writing from, though it is supposedly a country of poets; that, of course, is a species of folklore which the population, especially the semi-literate, swallow whole. Had I not been invited by the foundation to celebrate the month, April would have passed me by with no more, or no less poetic resonance than the rest of the months. Maybe that’s because I live so far away. But I also suspect it’s because a practicing poet needs April like he or she needs a Finnish diet. Let me be blunt: a couple of hours each day to write; a couple more to read and several to wander in thought is all we need to complete our crucial task. Like any other profession, eight hours is just about right. Bill Gates could support the lot of us just by cleaning a toenail.
But who cares? Ninety-eight percent of the reading public is not interested, or simply doesn’t have the specific training to read verse. The training is the crux, just one of the ineluctable facts that institutional April bypasses. A reader can’t just pick up Chaucer, (or Dante, or Camões if your linguistic lineage is not English, or you happen not to be George Steiner). The average reader is one thing, but a good many American poets never bother to pick up Chaucer either. Pursued, the topic would lead to range of questions, which I won’t ask here. Though one observation is worth setting down: poetry is not prose. It lives in the valley of its making somewhere between music and language, more rule-bound in a musical sense than in a grammatical one, yet more semantic than music. Any brokering of these values and distinctions by the poet undermines what is possible. Poets, contemporary poets, need to know their Chaucer. Yet, paradoxically, once they do, once they learn what an attractive piece of legislation the rhyme royal actually is, their poetry will move in directions that lose readers.
So how does the stuff keep getting written, published and held up by incoming presidents and huge foundations, and departments in every major to middling to minor university in the country, as something that should be “produced” and “consumed?” How do we actually attract the attention we do? It seems that even though no one reads us, just as long as we’re out there writing (like monks and nuns tucked behind walls praying for the commonweal), we contribute to that civic sense people as members of a national culture, and, increasingly, an international culture need. Individuals who actually read poetry need us in one way, and the nation as a whole needs us in quite another.
And maybe that is what is important, that we legitimize a certain striving in the contemporary world towards articulation, away from what Kenneth Goldsmith (with due articulation) calls “provisional language;” that we provide an alternative to the mediatic, the program-speak, or the latest app, and that we help distinguish the personal discourse from the lockstep public discourse, from both its left boot and its right boot.
Among poetry’s many goods is that it reminds us that all acts of humanity spring from the tongue.
Martin Earl lives in Coimbra, in central Portugal. From 1986 until 2001 he lectured in English, translation, and American culture at the University of Coimbra. For the last ten years he has worked as a translator and a journalist. Earl has blogged on Harriet, and his translation of Antonio Medeiros’s...