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National Schmational: Do We Really Need A "National Poetry Month"?

by Jough Dempsey
31 March 2002
National Poetry Month: April 2002

Since April 1996, hundreds of American booksellers, publishers, poets, organizations, schools, and institutions have been attempting to sell more books of poetry by dull, unoriginal, "positive" and "uplifting" poets, theoretically under the auspices of bringing the obviously marginalized art form to the masses.

April is the cruelest month...

Why April? Well, according to the Academy of American Poets' web site (the AAP is the sponsor of the events and creator of NPM), they wanted a month out of the school year, so that they could involve schools. The Fall is already filled with holidays, so it had to be the Spring. February is already "Black History Month." March is "Women's History Month." April is probably some other history month (every month is the "national" month for many different causes and organizations - after all, there are only twelve to go around) but April was the month chosen by the AAP.

But why have a "National Poetry Month"?

The mainstream and popular activities in American culture don't have, or need, a "national month." You won't see a "National Watch TV Month," or a "National Football Month" because those are activities that people engage in without encouragement or convincing.

"Black History" and "Women's History" months represent a subjugated sub- culture of American life. Never mind that women make up more than fifty percent of the American population and are therefore a majority. The fact is that the histories of these two groups was probably under- appreciated at some time, at least enough for someone to think that it may help to make a "Month" for their groups.

Poetry too is a ghettoized genre of American reading. It seems that most people respect poetry, are perhaps a little afraid of it, think that it's beyond them, it's boring, etcetera. So in order to sell more books of poetry, the AAP created "National Poetry Month" to bring poetry into the National Spotlight of the Under-Appreciated.

It's too bad that most of the poetry that they promote is of the vaguest and most unappealing kind being written. It's necessary, though, when listening from their local shopping mall, for people to be able to fully understand a poem by hearing it only once. Any poems that require deeper readings to unlock their hidden treasures would be unsuited to the task of providing background noise while people pound down Big Macs in the food court.

Unfortunately, the poetic equivalent of elevator music serves not to draw people to poetry as much as it drives them from it.

What am I supposed to do to celebrate "National Poetry Month"?

According to the AAP, they have seven goals for National Poetry Month:

  1. To highlight the extraordinary legacy and ongoing achievement of American poets
  2. To introduce more Americans to the pleasures of reading poetry
  3. To bring poets and poetry to the public in immediate and innovative ways
  4. To make poetry a more important part of the school curriculum
  5. To increase the attention paid to poetry by national and local media
  6. To encourage increased publication, distribution, and sales of poetry books
  7. To increase public and private philanthropic support for poets and poetry
We'll look at these one at a time.

To highlight the extraordinary legacy and ongoing achievement of American poets

I'm not sure what the AAP means by "highlight" here - but it seems that this first goal is simply to bring poetry to the consciousness of the American public. It's a worthy goal - if people don't think about poetry, they're not likely to buy any poetry books. Of course, even if they're reminded that poetry is 'out there,' they still may need convincing that it's worth reading.

But in highlighting the "extraordinary legacy and ongoing achievement," what the AAP is essentially saying is that they're looking for a way for the "poetry community" (if indeed such a unified group exists) to pat itself on the back for an entire month. March has the Oscars, so maybe poetry awards should be given out in an awards season too. It makes sense, from a marketing standpoint.

To introduce more Americans to the pleasures of reading poetry

I'm not sure how they're attempting to achieve this goal. Once you've "highlighted" poetry, how would you go about introducing Americans to its "pleasures"? I can almost imagine a roped-off area in the food court: "Poetry, and a Back-rub!"

This is vague, spineless marketing spin. I think what they mean is that once they get the poetry under the nose of the public, they're going to try to get them to take a bite. Yum.

To bring poets and poetry to the public in immediate and innovative ways

This one could get scary. It's easy to be innovative the first few years, but after awhile, I could see this going to a ridiculous extreme. After all, there are only so many conceivable "poetry delivery systems" that would help to further this and the other six goals. I'm looking forward to the year that they start dropping poems on a crowd from an airplane.

To make poetry a more important part of the school curriculum

Here's the problem: not enough people are buying poetry books (compared to movie tickets or even novels). The companies need to diversify their audience. The solution: get 'em while they're young. Hey, it worked for television. And the cigarette manufacturers (I wonder what percentage of smokers started smoking after the age of thirty? A small percentage, I'd bet). Why shouldn't poetry try to cash-in on this potential target market?

I think teaching children about poetry is a good idea. If poetry were a normal part of education, children could be indoctrinated into poetry the way they are into other areas of academia.

But what poems are they teaching children? I know many adults who turn their noses up at poetry because of the doggerel that they were forced to read in school. Often, their teachers don't even understand what makes a poem work beyond the inside of a Hallmark card, so they are unable to convey the "pleasures" of poetry to their students.

To increase the attention paid to poetry by national and local media

This one goes hand in hand with the first goal. It's a sneak attack on the media: you create a "cause" that gets poetry of all kinds in the national media, and then use that generic advertising to piggy-back your specific campaigns onto, taking advantage of the advertising that someone else is paying for. Brilliant!

To encourage increased publication, distribution, and sales of poetry books

DING DING DING DING DING DING! Finally, at second-to-last on the list of goals, we have a winner. I was a bit surprised to see the AAP admit this. This is the single most important reason for a "National Poetry Month," and don't let anyone tell you it's about "awareness" or "education."

Better awareness = greater interest = greater demand = greater profits$$$$$$$$$.

To increase public and private philanthropic support for poets and poetry

Mo' money, mo' money, mo' money. Oh, and unlike the previous goal, this time, they don't even have to go through the trouble of selling anything or creating a poetry "product" to give men something to put on their coffee-tables to impress their dates:

WOMAN: Oh, you read poetry?
MAN: (suavely) Of course. Doesn't everyone?

It's not that I don't think poets should be able to earn a living. And there are a lot of great books being published every year, many of them worthy of being purchased, and in some cases, even read.

I simply object to the hidden agenda, the claim that it's "not about the money, it's about art". Cat food manufacturers don't make the claim that healthier, happier felines are good for the well-being of our nation, but in the arts, the organizations that are supposed to have been created for the furthering of that art seem to discount the merits and salability of the art itself, instead claiming that it's "for the children," implying that poetry is like a dose of medicine - unpleasant but necessary.

That's the underlying message of "National Poetry Month" - that poetry isn't enjoyable, liked, or worthwhile, but, like that foul-tasting cough syrup, is good for you.

I also object to the saccharine, bland, "safe" poetry that gets shoved down our throats every year at the AAP sponsored readings. Is listening to this crap in America's malls, schools, and museums really going to turn people on to poetry? Anything worth reading is potentially offensive to someone. The "safe" poetry is that which doesn't take a stand, doesn't form an opinion, doesn't say anything that hasn't already been said a thousand times.

For my part, I'll spend NPM trying to encourage folks to read good poetry, and to stay out of the malls.


Jough Dempsey is a poet and critic, and the editor of Plagiarist.com , an archive for poetry and essays. He celebrates "National Poetry Month" by staying at home.

You may read more about National Poetry Month at the Academy of American Poets web site.


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