April is National Poetry Month. I used to ignore this–as I ignored most such days and months of observation, deeming them occasions invented for the sake of selling advertising space rather than designed to promote the actual value of the thing being celebrated–until a few years ago. When I lived in Edinburgh I started to think about International Women’s Day and the point of having an entire month dedicated to the acknowledgment of women’s struggle for equality; eventually this pondering extended to the other things that have been nominated for celebration in the West. Some of these are undoubtedly commercially motivated–do we need a national chocolate chip cookie day? (Isn’t that, like, every day? Does one really need an excuse to make chocolate chip cookies, beyond the smell and taste of them when they’re just out of the oven? I thought not.) Poetry, on the other hand, very much needs all the promotion it can get.
I didn’t like poetry much when I was a kid. I grew up surrounded by books and have been an avid reader since before I could talk, but rarely did anyone steer me toward a particular writer or work. I studied the poems I was assigned in school, with varying degrees of success. It wasn’t until seeing Eric Stoltz recite some of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry in what was otherwise a fairly poor film (as I recall it, it’s been a while) when I was fifteen that I really appreciated the beauty of a poem. It had never occurred to me that poetry sounded different, could carry so much more meaning, when read out loud by someone with a good ear. (I am not such a performer, unhappily.)
After that, while I remained a hit-or-miss student as far as my assignments were concerned, my personal love of the form snowballed. I read as much of the Romantic poets as I could get my hands on, and started looking for recordings of poems as well as printed volumes. My only request for a high school graduation gift was the then just-released Fourth Edition of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, which my mother was kind enough to get for me. A friend gave me a copy of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of selections from Rilke before I left for university, and I spent most of the plane journey to Scotland devouring the book (it remains my favourite poetry, bar none). Margaret introduced me to so many poems and poets I can’t list them all here–Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Federico Garcia Lorca, Denise Levertov, Saul Williams. I trawled the university library shelves (and my treasured Norton Anthology), coming up with Hart Crane, Jorie Graham, Audre Lorde, W. H. Auden, Alexander Pope, Rupert Brooke.
Despite all this, I was in my late twenties before I could shake the notion that poetry, while still something people did, and did well, was not the art form it had once been, and not relevant to the way we live now. I felt like most of the great poets of the English language were gone. I liked the work of some of the living poets I knew of, but I didn’t find the same vitality and depth in them that I valued in the work of the older poetry I valued.
It took me some time to realize that this was because I wasn’t making an effort to look up the work of up-and-coming poets, not because it didn’t exist. If this ever does become true for us as a culture, it will be because too many of us have given up looking for poetry that speaks to us, and those with the promise of being great poets have given up in despair. (I hope we never make it to such a sorry state.) I do hear frequent comments about how culture is dead because of e-readers and rap music and [insert modern trend or convenience or bug-bear of your choice]. Because we don’t speak and relate to each other in the way that people did when Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Walt Whitman were writing; because all these new things and our own materialism are devouring us. The thing is, that argument has been going around for centuries; before it was video games it was motorcars and electric lighting and movies with sound; dancehalls and vaudeville, cosmetics and women’s clothing that could be bought ready-made; and so on, back to Gutenberg’s Bible and the fear that once anyone could read what they wanted, they’d soon be able to analyze it for themselves, and then it would be so much harder to control the masses. (Well, the doom-sayers were right on that score.) As for the rest of it–each new form that has arisen has given us new ways of telling stories. We lose when try to erase parts of our history, when we single out minority groups for persecution, denigration, and worse, not when we read an old text on an electronic screen or learn about the American Revolution in a show that incorporates rap music and a multi-ethnic cast.
National Poetry Month is important because it draws the attention of a few more people than might otherwise notice to the vibrant spoken and printed poetry being produced every year–and, like Banned Books Week, because it’s a good excuse to read more. I used to type up a poem I liked to post on Facebook every day in April, but my schedule no longer allows me such an indulgence; there are also copyright issues to consider. I will post a few poems and links during the course of the month–to start with, here’s a link to Ben Whishaw reciting John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, from the end of the film Bright Star. It would also be great to hear from others about poems / poets you like. So help a girl out, point me to some new stuff I might not have come across yet. What poetry do you like?