This is simply to inform you:
that the thickest line in the kink of my hand
smells like the feel of an old school desk,
the deep carved names worn sleek with sweat;
that beneath the spray of my expensive scent
my armpits sound a bass note strong
as the boom of a palm on a kettle drum;
that the wet flush of my fear is sharp
as the taste of an iron pipe, midwinter,
on a child’s hot tongue; and that sometimes,
in a breeze, the delicate hairs on the nape
of my neck, just where you might bend
your head, might hesitate and brush your lips,
hold a scent frail and precise as a fleet
of tiny origami ships, just setting out to sea.
And they say
If I would just sing lighter songs
Better for me would it be,
But not is this truthful;
For sense remote
Adduces worth and gives it
Even if ignorant reading impairs it;
But it’s my creed
That these songs yield
No value at the commencing
Only later, when one earns it.
—translated from Giraut de Bornelh (12th century)
April is the cruelest month for poetry.
As part of the spring ritual of National Poetry Month, poets are symbolically dragged into the public square in order to be humiliated with the claim that their product has not achieved sufficient market penetration and must be revived by the Artificial Resuscitation Foundation (ARF) lest the art form collapse from its own incompetence, irrelevance, and as a result of the general disinterest among the broad masses of the American People.
The motto of ARF’s National Poetry Month is: “Poetry’s not so bad, really.”
National Poetry Month is sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, an organization that uses its mainstream status to exclude from its promotional activities much of the formally innovative and “otherstream” poetries that form the inchoate heart of the art of poetry. The Academy’s activities on behalf of National Poetry Month tend to focus on the most conventional of contemporary poetry; perhaps a more accurate name for the project might be National Mainstream Poetry Month. Then perhaps we could designate August as National Unpopular Poetry Month.
Through its “safe poetry” free verse distribution program, the American Academy of Poetry’s major initiative for National Poetry Month is to give away millions of generic “poetry books” to random folks throughout the country. This program is intended to promote safe reading experiences and is based on ARF’s founding principle that safe poetry is the best prophylactic against aesthetic experience.
Free poetry is never free, nor is free verse without patterns.
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Only an auctioneer admires all schools of art.” National Poetry month professes to an undifferentiated promotion for “all” poetry, as if supporting all poetry, any more than supporting all politics, you could support any.
National Poetry Month is about making poetry safe for readers by promoting examples of the art form at its most bland and its most morally “positive.” The message is: Poetry is good for you. But, unfortunately, promoting poetry as if it were an “easy listening” station just reinforces the idea that poetry is culturally irrelevant and has done a disservice not only to poetry deemed too controversial or difficult to promote but also to the poetry it puts forward in this way. “Accessibility” has become a kind of Moral Imperative based on the condescending notion that readers are intellectually challenged, and mustn’t be presented with anything but Safe Poetry. As if poetry will turn people off to poetry.
Poetry: Readers Wanted. The kind of poetry I want is not a happy art with uplifting messages and easy to understand emotions. I want a poetry that’s bad for you. Certainly not the kind of poetry that Volkswagen would be comfortable about putting in every new car it sells, which, believe it or not, is a 1999 feature of the Academy’s National Poetry Month program.
The most desirable aim of the Academy’s National Poetry Month is to increase the sales of poetry books. But when I scan some of the principal corporate sponsors of the program of the past several years, I can’t help noting (actually I can but I prefer not to) that some are among the major institutions that work actively against the wider distribution of poetry. The large chain bookstores are no friends to the small presses and independent bookstores that are the principal supporters of all types of American poetry: they have driven many independents out of business and made it more difficult for most small presses (the site of the vast majority of poetry publishing) to get their books into retail outlets, since by and large these presses are excluded from the large chains. I also note this year that The New York Times is a major sponsor of National Poetry Month; but if the Times would take seriously the task of reviewing poetry books and readings, it would be doing a far greater service to poetry than advertising its support for National Poetry Month. The whole thing strikes me as analogous to cigarette makers sponsoring a free emphysema clinic. Indeed, part of the purpose of the Academy’s National Poetry Month appears to be to advertise National Poetry Month and its sponsors—thus, the Academy has taken out a series of newspapers ads that mention no poets and no poems but rather announce the existence of National Poetry Month with a prominent listing of its backers, who appear, in the end, to be sponsoring themselves.
The path taken by the Academy’s National Poetry Month, and by such foundations as Lannan and the Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Fund, have been misguided because these organizations have decided to promote not poetry but the idea of poetry, and the idea of poetry too often has meant almost no poetry at all. Time and time again we hear the official spokespersons tell us they want to support projects that give speedy and efficient access to poetry and that the biggest obstacle to this access is, indeed, poetry, which may not provide the kind of easy reading required by such mandates.
The solution: find poetry that most closely resembles the fast and easy reading experiences of most Americans under the slogans—Away with Difficulty! Make Poetry Palatable for the People! I think particularly of the five-year plan launched under the waving banners of Disguise the Acid Taste of the Aesthetic with NutriSweet Coating, which emphasized producing poetry in short sound bites, with MTV-type images to accompany them, so the People will not even know they are getting poetry.
This is the genius of the new Literary Access programs: the more you dilute art, the more you appear to increase the access. But access to what? Not to anything that would give a reader or listener any strong sense that poetry matters, but rather access to a watered down version that lacks the cultural edge and the aesthetic sharpness of the best popular and mass culture. The only reason that poetry matters is that is has something different to offer, something slower on the uptake, maybe, but more intense for all that, and also something necessarily smaller in scale in terms of audience. Not better than mass culture but a crucial alternative to it.
The reinvention, the making of a poetry for our time, is the only thing that makes poetry matter. And that means, literally, making poetry matter, that is making poetry that intensifies the matter or materiality of poetry—acoustic, visual, syntactic, semantic. Poetry is very much alive when it finds ways of doing things in a media-saturated environment that only poetry can do, but very much dead when it just retreads the same old same old.
As an alternative to National Poetry Month, I propose that we have an International Anti-Poetry month. As part of the activities, all verse in public places will be covered over—from the Statue of Liberty to the friezes on many of our government buildings. Poetry will be removed from radio and TV (just as it is during the other eleven months of the year). Parents will be asked not to read Mother Goose and other rimes to their children but only … fiction. Religious institutions will have to forego reading verse passages from the liturgy and only prose translations of the Bible will recited, with hymns strictly banned. Ministers in the Black churches will be kindly requested to stop preaching. Cats will be closed for the month by order of the Anti-Poetry Commission. Poetry readings will be replaced by self-help lectures. Love letters will have to be written only in expository paragraphs. Baseball will have to start its spring training in May. No vocal music will be played on the radio or sung in the concert halls. Children will have to stop playing all slapping and counting and singing games and stick to board games and football.
As part of the campaign, the major daily newspapers will run full page ads with this text:
Go ahead, don’t read any poetry.
You won’t be able to understand it anyway:
the best stuff is all over your head.
And there aren’t even any commercials to liven up the action.
Anyway, you’ll end up with a headache trying to figure out
what the poems are saying because they are saying
Who needs that.
Better go to the movies.
I see where Walden Pond has been drained to make an amusement park.
We know the story, why she was there
before the sun rose that first day,
on a world that had been saved in its sleep.
She was the first to see the stone
unrolled, the tomb emptied of the body
she had come to cleanse and anoint
with oils, the body she could touch
only in death.
In the darkness, prophesies
may be forgotten, and we see why
she ran to rouse his disciples, able-bodied
men who could not stand at the foot
of his cross with her. Catching her breath,
she watched two of them rush off—
one solid as rock, who sliced off the ear
of a servant, and denied him thrice
before dawn; and the other who leaned
against his chest, called the beloved—
yet both returned empty-handed,
closing the door to a room where
the rest (except the venom-lipped one
who kissed him in the garden) broke
bread with trembling fingers, asking who
could have dared to take him.
returned to the barren scene, weeping
for the body other hands must have stolen,
the body she could not believe would rise
again. Mourning, not for the world,
but for her loss, she was unconsoled
by the words of angels whose wings
shone in the tomb, as if the seven demons
he had banished came howling back
to possess her, seven pairs of eyes closing
and crying inside her.
We speak of tears
blurring her vision, for how else
could she have mistaken him—appearing
to her in the flesh—for a gardener?
Perhaps she was thinking of other gardens,
other angels barring the way to a paradise
she could never enter, not with him.
And when he asked her those questions,
how could he not have been moved
by the woman who was willing to bear
the sacred weight of his body, take it
to another place of rest, and carry
the burden in her breast all her life?
She heard a voice tenderly calling her
by name. Mary.
Something like wings
unfolded inside her, and she looked up
at the face she knew by heart, changed
and shining with a light so painful
it could only be love. She whispered,
Teacher, and knelt at his feet. Stop holding
on to me, he began to say, but we suspect
the gospel writer rewrote this scene
to speak of his ascension.
did he calm the turbulent waves
of her hair, brush his wounded palms
against her cheeks, hold her in his arms
as she sobbed against his risen body?
We do not know, we weren’t there.
Yet he rose like the sun to eternal life,
and not for her alone, but for all those
who ran away, for the world that dreamed
in the dark that day.
She who loved him
maybe the most, loved what she could
hold on to, and kissed his feet. We read
what she told those quivering men,
I have seen and touched the Lord. But with all
We know of human love, of the wounds
and demons it inflicts and heals, we know
what must have given her strength to begin
the rest of her life. He appeared to me first.
How could she not go on living after that?