Inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month is now held every April, when schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets throughout the United States band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture. Thousands of organizations participate through readings, festivals, book displays, workshops, and other events.
By all means let us celebrate poetry—and the arts generally, and beyond that the intellectual adventure and life of the spirit of which they are a part. Let us celebrate poetry and poets for what they are and steer clear of overblown rhetoric that trivalizes what it would praise. There is an aggrandizing and self-congratulatory air to all this public display of the thrall in which poetry holds us, exemplified by the good, earnest folk at National Public Radio and their featured poets as they gush all over themselves about the glories of poetry with every metaphor that rears its head. Alas, too, NPR’s infatuation with social media extends to poetry when as might be predicted, or feared, the tweet takes its place in the pantheon of poetic forms alongside ballad, sestina, sonnet, villanelle, and the ever popular haiku. Poet as noble twitterer.
For those of us to whom poetry matters, it matters a great deal. Beyond that, though, it is a bit of a reach, a dicey proposition at best, to claim that poetry has a vital place in American culture, and by extension in the lives of most Americans. Yet we are treated to heartfelt disquisitions such as a recent essay by Danny Heitman titled What poetry could teach a divided America (Christian Science Monitor, 5 April 2013), where the author supposes that good poems offer an exercise in empathy that “can strengthen our capacity for compassion and compromise, the central virtues of civil society. America would probably be a better place if more of us read poetry this April – and throughout the rest of 2013, too.” Heitman notes the place of poetry in ancient Greece, where it “was more than a mere pastime…. For the Greeks of antiquity, poetry stood at the center of civic life, helping to sustain the thinking that conceived representative government.”
These sentiments are fairly typical, and less effusive than some, of the highfalutin claims for poetry batted around this month. In this context it might behoove us to recall that the Greek city-states were a fractious and warring bunch. Democracies among them knew all too well flaws and shortcomings that are no stranger to the present day, among them a susceptibility to demagoguery and aversion to critical thinking. As for the role of poets, Plato had his reasons to be wary of poets and poetry and they were not altogether goofy.
Poetry in and of itself does not make us better people or citizens. No more than a cursory look at the lives of poets is needed to question whether the coupling of poetry and common decency, much less exemplariness, is anything more than happenstance. The catalog of poets who left more than a smidgen to be desired as human beings is long and in its own fashion illustrious. Byron enjoyed sex with quite youthful partners of both genders and was not much bothered when the other was not as game for the act as he, though in Byron’s defense his father, “Mad Jack” Byron, was a dissolute womanizer and spendthrift, while his mother did not exactly epitomize the maternal ideal, for instance, referring to her son as “a lame brat.” With those role models the poet probably turned out as well as might be expected. Rilke, a poet of quite different aspect, made devotion to art a rationale for neglect of parental and spousal responsibilities in a marriage one biographer described as epistolary. Jack Kerouac went to considerable effort to avoid paying child support, quite shamelessly, to judge by his correspondence with Allen Ginsberg, who seemed not to be bothered by it. Ginsberg himself used his fame and in later years position as a teacher to indulge his taste for attractive younger men, celebrated in poems for which it is difficult to imagine he would not have been pilloried instead of celebrated, at least in some circles, had he been of a heterosexual inclination.
There was more to each of these poets. As Ginsberg was dying he spent some of his last hours writing checks to friends he knew could use the money. Byron provided financial support for the Shelleys in Italy and met his death in Greece where he went to join the struggle for independence. There is also the poetry. While the poetry cannot be neatly and cleanly pared away from the poet’s life, its aesthetic qualities and artistic merit are not contingent on the author’s character and personal virtue. As Pound put it, “the beauty is not the madness” (Canto CXVI).
Yes, poetry enriches and enhances our lives, nourishes the spirit, imbues our world with elements of beauty and grace. The best poetry may also unsettle us, knock us loose from our moorings, bring us near the uncanny and eerie in those moments of heightened intensity where we think in terms of the transcendent and sublime. Poetry did not save Sergei Yesenin, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman. It will not save us, nor will it lift the cloak of mystery, before which our responses are always provisional.
I close without further conclusion by turning again, as I so often do, to John Keats, that astounding young man and poet, dead at twenty-five:
Every man has his speculations, but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes a false coinage and deceives himself—Many a man can travel to the very bourne of Heaven, and yet want confidence to put down his halfseeing…. We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.—How beautiful are the retired flowers! how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, “admire me I am a violet! dote upon me I am a primrose!”—Keats, letter to J.H. Reynolds, 3 February 1818
I have an idea that a Man might pass a very pleasant life in this manner—let him on any certain day read a certain Page of full Poesy or distilled Prose and let him wander with it, and muse upon it, and reflect from it, and bring home to it, and prophesy upon it, and dream upon it—untill (sic) it becomes stale—but when will it do so? Never…—Keats, letter to J.H. Reynolds, 9 February 1818
Keats also said, in a dedication and preface to “Hyperion” that was rejected by his publisher: “I have written to please myself, and in hopes to please others, and for a love of fame….” To please ourselves, to pass a pleasant life, or some pleasant moments in this life, seems to me pretty good reason to read and celebrate poetry.
memo from the editors desk, 2 May 2013
Notes for this essay were inadvertently included at the end when it was originally posted. Those notes have been deleted.