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A Month of Poetic Controversy

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When a group of people gets to have a month of their own, usually they're happy about it. But poets are a rebellious bunch, and not all of them are celebrating National Poetry Month in April. Their reasons vary. Some say the annual media fete for poetry trivializes an art form that takes time and attention and patience to appreciate. Some say NatPoMo ghettoizes poetry into a flavor-of-the-month pigeon-hole. But the Academy of American Poets, which launched Poetry Month 11 years ago, says it's a way of lending the genre some much-needed attention. Weekend America's Sean Cole is a poet and a reporter. We asked him to pit one side of himself against the other in this vicious poetry debate.

"Against National Poetry Month As Such" by Charles Bernstein

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.

(1999)Read the full piece


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