April always puts me in a mixed mood, and it’s not due to the tax deadline—I take care of that months earlier. It’s National Poetry Month. While, as a practicing poet (that sounds like an admission of guilt or something one says at a 12-step gathering, “Hi, my name is Grant, and I did poetry last night. I tried not to, but I couldn’t help myself,” then everyone hugs and tells their sonnet stories), I should appreciate this opportunity to be part of a nationwide promotion of verse. In April there are more poetry readings, festivals and three-legged poetry races than at any other time. Occasionally TV and radio programs—real ones, not the public access or streamed-from-the-basement sort—get involved too. Book stores dust off their unsold copies of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman (maybe even a Billy Collins—woohoo!) and move them to the front window next to the books on how to grow kale in old Birkenstock boxes. All this should get me excited, even proud, right?
April is also the beginning of trout fishing season, at least it is here in Pennsylvania. In fact, for the past few years the state has started the season on April 1st in the southeast counties to boost the economy for local mealworm vendors while the rest of the state has to wait for the middle of April to drown their bait. As a practicing angler, this should also get me excited, and it does a little, but mostly I just get annoyed.
If you’re still reading, at this point you might wonder how these two things are related—this is where the poetry practice pays off: I get to relate two unrelated things in a metaphorical sort of way. That MFA pays off in weird ways.
Where I live, about 30 miles NE of Philadelphia, most of the waterways the state designates as “approved trout water” couldn’t naturally hold a live trout for more than a couple of months before the temperature, silt and argi-industrial runoff kills it. The only reason there are trout swimming in those streams in April is because the state dumped in thousands of hatchery-bred clones. People line up, pull the shocked and deformed fish out of the streams, then go home leaving behind their empty bait containers, cigarette butts and sandwich wrappers to prove they were sportsmen.
I enjoyed that weirdness as a kid because I didn’t think too much about it. My dad would buy me a couple of new lures (which I’d lose to trees or rocks before the day was out), and I’d wear my fishing hat to school so people knew I was legit.
Poetry month feels a lot like that to me. The Academy doubles down on its Twitter and email campaigns (while trying to get people to buy their mugs and t-shirts). Local poetry groups set up flash verse mobs and encourage random acts of cadence. National Public Radio encourages people to tweet 140 character poems (minus the hashtag of course).
And Oprah publishes a poetry issue of her self-indulgent O magazine. This month, on the web site next to an article called “Trying on Shoes with Sarah Jessica Parker” is a post by actress Mary-Louise Parker about poet Kevin Young. Now I’m a very big fan of Kevin Young, and I’ve nothing against Weeds, but the whole thing seems like pandering to me, as if a celebrity has to endorse it before anyone takes it seriously. Hey look, celebrities like heels and similes.
For one month a year poetry is treated like a charity—and poets are supposed to get excited and thank the rest of the world for noticing.
Poetry doesn’t need saving from obscurity by the mass media or Oprah’s friends. Poetry’s enemies are the poets themselves. There are probably more poetry journals and books of poetry published today than ever before. There are more people studying poetry in BFA and MFA programs than ever before. People who love to write and want to make a go of it will do it without April’s showers.
Still, with all those poets, no one’s making any money or selling many books or subscriptions. Poetry readings are mostly ghost towns. The poetry sections of most book stores have more space taken up by Suzanne Somers than the current U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. Two decades of National Poetry Months hasn’t changed that one bit.
Poets are cheap, lazy (in the conventional sense, but often obsessive about writing) and prefer limited company. Poetry month isn’t going to help that. Poetry month doesn’t change the way non-poets or non-poetry readers feel about poetry. It’s not going to get any member of my family or anyone on my street to attend a reading, subscribe to a journal or even spend more than a glancing thought at a poem they accidentally hear on All Things Considered.
Now, since I’ve really lost my train of thought, let’s get back to the trout season metaphor. Opening weekend tends to bring a circus atmosphere to what should be a quiet, focused and solitary activity. The hype, promotion and stocked fish ruin a good thing. The creeks get trashed, the trail flowers get trampled down and the landowners get pissed off at all the trespassers. Sometimes I worry that promoting Poetry Month will result in the same thing for poetry—then I remember it’s poetry, and everyone will forget it ever happened come May.
Need something to do for Poetry Month? Buy my book.