This article is Ancient (archive 2011)

BTW: It’s National Poetry Month

It’s That Time of Year Again

We all know that April is the cruelest month, but did you know it is also National Poetry Month? As a producer and consumer of poetry, I knew. Last year, despite being notoriously unprolific, I participated in National Poetry Month and tried to write one poem a day for the entire month. Despite the added social pressure, I still failed miraculously. Nevertheless, this year, Poetry Month caught me off guard.

Perhaps National Poetry Month didn’t advertised itself well enough, but National Variable Months hardly ever do.  However much time culture spends raising awareness for things it feels like it should care about, these efforts tend to go to waste. Thanks to Black History Month, I know that George Washington Carver invented peanut butter. Thanks to National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, I know no more about colorectal cancer than I would have without its designated awareness month. My spell checker isn’t even aware that colorectal is a word.

Enthusiasts of almost anything can try to lobby their congresspersons to introduce legislation to declare a given month, perhaps of some significance to the history or culture of whatever they support, and, if this succeeds, they will have their own national awareness month.

Perhaps because of Eliot’s opening line to The Waste Land, perhaps to steal a little of Sexually Transmitted Diseases Education and Awareness Month’s thunder, the Academy of American Poets went through this amount of trouble to make April National Poetry Month. And, even so, I forget. Why?

Samuel Johnson quotes Imlac: “Wherever I went I found that Poetry was considered as the highest learning, and regarded with a veneration somewhat approaching to that which man would pay to the Angelick Nature.” The fact that we need a month to remind ourselves of this and that we’re not particularly consistent in observing it suggests otherwise, but Johnson goes on to say through Imlac that:

It fills me with wonder, that, in almost all countries, the most ancient poets are considered as the best: whether it be that every other kind of knowledge is an acquisition gradually attained, and poetry is a gift conferred at once; or that the first poetry of every nation surprised them as a novelty, and retained the credit by consent which it received by accident at first.

Dammit, Will!

And, indeed, this still seems true. Despite a series of miraculously successful thrusts towards renaissance, cultures, throughout time, seem to fall back into this sort of hero worship, making any efforts towards advancement seem futile. “We’ll never be Shakespeare, so why bother?” Never mind that while responsible for what are [supposedly] some of the best plays in the English language, he is also responsible some of the worst. Anyone whose read the body of Shakespeare’s work must admit he was perfectly capable of mediocrity. Jonson [, Ben] accurately remarked “I remember, the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out line. My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand.”

I generally suggest that the difference between great artists and mediocre ones is that great artists don’t publish their notebooks, but Shakespeare didn’t follow this dictum. Neither did Pound. Neither did the Beats. The Romantics, I should add, made their careers on notebooks filled with slipshod workmanship.

In The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom that the conflicting impulses to have an original voice and plagiarize the poets who influenced you, to write what you know and be derivative and boring, creates considerable anxiety among poets and encourages experimentation.  This may be true enough for those poets secure or deluded enough to get this far, but that the prospect of being derivative troubles most poets far less than the prospect of being bad, a considerably more severe offense.

As for ‘Every man his own poet’, the more every man knows about poetry the better. I believe in every one writing poetry who wants to; most do. I believe in every man knowing enough of music to play ‘God bless our home’ on the harmonium, but I do not believe in every man giving concerts and printing his sin.


As it happens, hardly anyone can play “God Bless our Home” on the harmonium either.

Bill James suggests that we simply no long encourage the production of poets and writers of Shakespeare’s caliber, and this may be somewhat true. It may also be true that there is no longer any demand for such labor, but that does not suggest that there is no need.

The culture of hero worship does not lend itself to appreciation. I mean thesort appreciation by which one not only enjoys but also judges a work. Awe precludes such appreciation. In awe, one can either enjoy or judge, not both.  By choosing April, National Poetry Month certainly encourages us to celebrate our poetic heritage, but perhaps to the detriment of the poetic tradition. The month in which Chaucer sets his tales and Eliot sets the canonical poem of the last century elevates the position in the heritage, but saddles the tradition with anachronistic and baggage and unrealistic expectations.  This explains why so much poetry ends up either derivative or bad.  And how relevant are Chaucer and Eliot to the poetic tradition that we try to encourage?

Very, I suppose. But are they any more relevant than anyone else? Not really. And not from a postmodern or futuristic position of “all things are equal,” or “tear-down-museums” [however sympathetic I am to these personally], but from a position that assumes, in the greatest of modernist traditions that we can take what we can from the past and move forward.

Which is why I’ll be celebrating National Poetry Month in May. And so that I won’t start trying to write a poem a day for a month eight days behind.

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