Tomorrow morning some poet may, like Byron, wake up to find himself famous -- for having written a novel, for having killed his wife; it will not be for having written a poem.
-- Randall Jarrell
April is the cruelest month," T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land begins, and so begins poet Charles Bernstein's essay "Against National Poetry Month As Such." In that essay, Bernstein laments the annual ritual of dragging poets into the spotlight in order to be humiliated by claims that "their products have not achieved sufficient market penetration and must be revived ... lest the art form collapse from its own incompetence, irrelevance." The resulting message to America: a degrading "Poetry's not so bad, really."
Mary Leader, a poet who teaches at the University of Memphis, sympathizes with Bernstein's despair at what she calls this month's "Poetry is for everyone! YEAH! YEAH! YEAH!" campaign. "I don't take the point that anyone who can read, can read poetry. But I do think that it has in common with very deep art forms an appeal that people may not be able to explain," says Leader.
It's an appeal actively highlighted by the Academy of American Poets, which boasts on its Web site (without any real evidence) that since National Poetry Month's inception in April 1996, the initiative "has grown exponentially, with an estimated audience that now reaches into the tens of millions."
And, truly, former poet laureate Robert Pinsky did much to give validity to the claim. His popular "Favorite Poem Project" sent the message that everyone -- your baker, your garbage collector, even your first lady -- has a favorite poem. The project is an archive of short documentary-style film clips where "ordinary" and "extraordinary" people are shown discussing and reciting their favorite poems. Though the project didn't uncover a secret America with an unbridled enthusiasm for poetry, it did give the sense that poetry was still hanging around in some important, if neglected, corners of our consciousness.
But here in Memphis (like the rest of America), April is merely the month our taxes are due. There isn't a lot of talk about poetry on the local evening news or around the office water cooler, but there are weekly open-mics at many of the local coffee shops, where people pull poems out of their back pockets and their laptops. In a world where literary magazines die almost as quickly as they're born, the fact that one of our own, River City, is getting ready to celebrate its 25th anniversary with a special "Elvis" issue in May is something for Memphis to be proud of.
But poems have not, despite Maya Angelou's new greeting-card line and Jewel's lyric efforts, achieved any market penetration to speak of. And in all fairness, there are so many thousands of bad poems out there, who knows where to begin to find the good ones? Certainly not at our local super-bookstore chains, where maybe one measly shelf offers (at best) only the broadest sampling of dead poets (including Jim Morrison) and a handful of contemporaries who have managed to land a Pulitzer or a National Book Award (or record deal). And who can blame the stores? Selling poetry is no way to run a business. If the industry were really only interested in selling poems, they would print them on toilet paper.
"In this country, we tend to measure things census-style, and numbers are not the only way to measure the impact of something," says Leader, who offers, half-jokingly, a "trickle-down poetics" based on the idea that when language changes, the world changes.
According to Leader, "There is no one who is engaged as intensively at changing language, in pushing language, in refining language -- nobody labors in that field exclusively, except for poets and possibly lawyers."
"It's not a bad thing to suggest that people read poems," says Little Rock-based poet Ralph Burns, who just stepped down as editor-in-chief of Crazyhorse, a renowned literary magazine started in California in 1960 by Tom McGrath. (For the inaugural issue, McGrath wrote a manifesto that laid out the type of poetry the magazine would publish: "Crazyhorse will gentle its own mustangs and stomp its own snakes, and we aren't interested in either the shrunken trophies of the academic head hunters nor in those mammoth cod-pieces stuffed with falsies, the primitive invention of the Nouveau Beat.")
"It's not because it's spinach and it's good for you that you should learn your Tennyson the same way you should take your vitamin A," says Leader, "but because it's a vital art form. And because in the hands of its best makers, it makes an object of art that cannot be made any other way."
For more information on National Poetry Month and a more comprehensive selection of poetry, go to the Academy of American Poets Web site at www.poets.org. Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project can be accessed at www.favoritepoem.org. River City can be purchased at local bookstores. For more information on Crazyhorse, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Crazyhorse, Department of English, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC 29424.