Thoughts on National Poetry Month…Reading at Rutgers University, Plangere Writing Center: 4/26, 6-8pm
I’ll be taking part in a student and faculty reading on Thursday sponsored by the Anthologist, the literary arts magazine of Rutgers College. (The Anthologist, which was founded in 1927, has published key pieces by performance artist Allan Kaprow). Here’s the schedule for Thursday’s event:
6:00-6:30 – Welcome, food, and introductions
6:35 – Lawrence Lyman
6:45 – Evie Shockley
7:00 – Sarah Baker & Eliza Desind
7:10 – Michael Leong
7:25 – Michelle Emenecker & Nicole Brooks
7:35 – Mark Doty
7:50 – Open Mic
Since this is a “National Poetry Month” event, I’ve taken some time to ruminate a bit on the function of NPM. As I’ve been writing book reviews for Hyperallergic as of late (I’m working on one right now), I’ve been trying to follow the really wide-ranging coverage of the art blogazine as much as possible; about a week or two ago, Hyperallergic ran Morten Høi Jensen’s “The Verse That Could Happen,” a boisterous piece that claims, “spreading ‘awareness of poetry’ [the putative goal of National Poetry Month] is a bit like trying to spread a brick on a bagel.” Jensen ends by critiquing Charles Bernstein’s notorious polemic against National Poetry Month:
Mr. Bernstein’s call for an International Anti-Poetry Month is a [sic] just a tad overzealous. (Let’s not kid ourselves, Charles: if the poets start turning against poetry, we’re all goners.) If we absolutely have to celebrate poetry in some fashion during the month of April, then why not use the occasion to bring some long-but-unjustly-forgotten poet back from out of print? Howard Nemerov, say, or Genevieve Taggard…On the other hand, to go back to Bernstein’s idea, maybe we could celebrate anti-poetry month in a more poetic vein: Dislike Poetry Month.
I like Jensen’s spirit: “Dislike Poetry Month” cleverly brings together Marianne Moore’s classic poem “Poetry” (which famously begins “I, too, dislike it”) with the “Like”/”Dislike” binary that dominates social media sites such as YouTube.
But I wouldn’t say that Nemerov is exactly a “long-but-unjustly-forgotten poet”–after all, he does have a profile at poets.org, the website of the Academy of American Poets, the organization that inaugurated National Poetry Month; by contrast, poets such as Norman Pritchard and Bern Porter do not have AAP profiles. And at the time of writing, Amazon.com lists The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov as “In Stock.” (Taggard–it is true–could use a new edition.) More importantly, I feel that Jensen may have missed the point of Bernstein’s “Against National Poetry Month As Such,” a satirical essay from the 1999 book My Way: Speeches and Poems (University of Chicago Press). Bernstein argues:
As an alternative to National Poetry Month, I propose that we have an International Anti-Poetry month. As part of the activities, all verse in public places will be covered over—from the Statue of Liberty to the friezes on many of our government buildings. Poetry will be removed from radio and TV (just as it is during the other eleven months of the year). Parents will be asked not to read Mother Goose and other rimes to their children but only … fiction. Religious institutions will have to forego reading verse passages from the liturgy and only prose translations of the Bible will recited, with hymns strictly banned. Ministers in the Black churches will be kindly requested to stop preaching. Cats will be closed for the month by order of the Anti-Poetry Commission. Poetry readings will be replaced by self-help lectures. Love letters will have to be written only in expository paragraphs. Baseball will have to start its spring training in May. No vocal music will be played on the radio or sung in the concert halls. Children will have to stop playing all slapping and counting and singing games and stick to board games and football.
Bernstein’s point is that poetry is so embedded within our general culture that it doesn’t need to be ghettoized within a single month. Bernstein is not so much “turning against poetry,” as Jensen suggests, but promoting alternative kinds of poetry, kinds of poetry that Bernstein feels get marginalized in National Poetry Month promotional campaigns. In short, there is a poetics to Bernstein’s “modest proposal,” and I’m not sure if Jensen’s Dislike Poetry Month is “more poetic”; it is just poetic in a different way. Bernstein’s proposed constraints (writing a love letter only in expository prose) are very much in the vein of conceptual poetry; they read, in fact, like an Oulipo exercise. The idea to excise verse passages from liturgies and to cover up verse on public monuments can also be understood in the tradition of erasure–from Ronald Johnson to Mary Ruefle. It is a poetics of removal, blankness, and motivated obfuscation–one that Bernstein explored in “this poem intentionally left blank,” a conceptual piece anthologized in The Norton Anthology of Poetry. If Bernstein’s piece can be faulted, I think it would have to do with the way he somewhat too easily moves from the idea of an “international” collective action to a very U.S.-centric context (the Statue of Liberty, Cats). Bernstein certainly could have reflected on the state of international censorship and the ways in which poetic speech is forcibly silenced.
To come back to Jensen, I like how he ends his Hyperallergic post by quoting the next two lines of Moore’s “Poetry”: “Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it, after all, a place for the genuine.” Is there a social media button that can convey that?