It's spring, and poetry is in the air
As National Poetry Month kicks off, some ask if it symbolizes a felt
April is poetry's month-long party. In most major cities, poetry events seem as plentiful as spring puddles. The "resurgence" of poetry is covered in newspapers and magazines, on TV and radio. Last year, even Jay Leno got on the National Poetry Month bandwagon.Skip to next paragraph
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But when April ends, what do poets really say about the state of the art form they love? Is there a shared voice?
Poets know that poetry has a lot to offer our high-speed culture.
"What poetry does is feed souls," says Maria Mazziotti Gillan, founder of the Poetry Center at Passaic Community College in Paterson, N.J. Good poetry emphasizes what people have in common, she says.
"Poetry is a counterbalance to what's on TV. The TV keeps telling people that you can buy happiness, that buying things can make you feel good about yourself," she says.
Ms. Gillan founded the Poetry Center precisely because of poetry's ability to feed the heart and mind in declining urban centers like Paterson. She views poetry as a kind of balm that can be life-altering. Gillan directs a poet-in-the-schools program for Paterson, edits the Paterson Literary Review, and runs a reading series that regularly attracts an audience of 100 to 150 people.
But she also points out that poetry misses its mark when it is "so esoteric and incomprehensible, and when it can be read only by academics." The result of that has been audiences that are very small or made up only of poets.
Some would say the glass is half empty.
Not Robert Pinsky, America's poet laureate. Mr. Pinsky is definitely a "half-full" guy. He says poets shouldn't concern themselves with building an audience or making poetry as salable as other genres. Emily Dickinson and Ben Johnson write great poems, he says, and this builds an audience.
Counter to mass media
Pinsky, who teaches at Boston University and edits poetry for the online magazine Slate, agrees that poetry becomes more vital as our culture becomes more media-driven. "As our mass media become more and more dazzling ... we crave some haven in an art whose medium is inherently, by its nature, individual and on a human scale.
"The medium for a poem," he explains, "is the audience's body: one person's voice, the voice of the reader who says it aloud."
Pinsky points to his "Favorite Poem Project" (www.favoritepoem.org) as proof that poetry isn't as endangered as some might believe. Since 1997, he has collected audio and video recordings of hundreds of Americans reading their favorite poems. The finished project will be given to the Library of Congress next year and kept as a permanent record.
Pinsky says he is continually surprised by the variety and intensity of the responses and the readings. And he also makes it clear that "the state of poetry does not depend upon attention being paid to the official living poets." For Pinsky, the project is evidence that poetry is "not so very underappreciated in the United States."
That sentiment would resonate with many of his contemporaries, most of whom have their own tales of meeting readers who have connected strongly with their work. But what might bristle some is Pinsky's comment about the "official living poets."
For many, the poets are the reason for National Poetry Month. Or to put it another way, they'd like to see poetry work its magic on more souls.
What is that work?
According to Thom Ward, it means building a committed core of poetry readers, not just writers. But as editor/development director of BOA Editions Limited, a not-for-profit poetry press in Rochester, N.Y., he knows how large a task that is. Poetry books rarely make a profit (most don't even break even), and most press runs remain at 1,000 to 3,000 copies. Some university presses have cut back on the number of poetry titles they publish. Often, the printing costs for these books are paid for by reading fees.
Book sales went AWOL
Why such a dismal scene?
For one thing, says Mr. Ward, the small, independent bookstores that have traditionally supported small presses just can't compete with the chain superstores. And the large chains can't afford to be taxed on inventory that doesn't move. The result is a much faster return time for new books.