Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Cruellest Month

Continuing the theme from yesterday, April is National Poetry Month. Read a poem, be it Dr. Suess or Goethe or William Carlos Williams. Write a haiku, who cares!

Though there are people who say that National Poetry Month is bad for poetry. Charles Bernstein writes:

National Poetry Month is about making poetry safe for readers by promoting examples of the art form at its most bland and its most morally "positive." The message is: Poetry is good for you. But, unfortunately, promoting poetry as if it were an "easy listening" station just reinforces the idea that poetry is culturally irrelevant and has done a disservice not only to poetry deemed too controversial or difficult to promote but also to the poetry it puts forward in this way. "Accessibility" has become a kind of Moral Imperative based on the condescending notion that readers are intellectually challenged, and mustn't be presented with anything but Safe Poetry. As if poetry will turn people off to poetry.

And he's not all wrong. It's like the poetry given to you in middle school. Watered down, flat. Boring. Unstimulating. Unimaginative. Good poetry should make you want to wrestle with it. It's an art form that engages the brain, as well as the imagination and the ear. It should be accessible on a multitude of levels, with subsequent readings adding new layers of meaning for the enjoyer of poetry.

But he's not all right, either. National Poetry Month is like the Oprah Book Club. I want to think the Book Club is bad, because people are only buying the book because Oprah told them to buy it. They're being sheep, they're not exercising their own judgment, they listen to her because she's a celebrity. Well...so? She gets people to read and buy books that otherwise they wouldn't have bought or read. And she tends to pick really good books. (I am choosing to ignore James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, and Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, both of which lost her endorsement anyway.) Many of these people are not readers, and wouldn't be if not for Oprah. Readers who do buy the book are likely to buy it whether or not Oprah recommended it. Similarly, National Poetry Month just might get teachers to talk about and encourage poetry in schools. It might cause someone to pause at a National Poetry Month table or endcap, and find someone new. Maybe someone will hear a poetry reading. Maybe one or all of these things will change something about a person, and suddenly, they will be poetry readers, or critics, or writers.

The problem isn't poetry, or National Poetry Month. The problem has to do with how our society is structured. With our schools. With allowing people to become frustrated and give up before they've even tried. Not enough teachers push their students. And we don't have enough good teachers because our society doesn't care about education. But that's a rant for another day.


brownishcoat said...

Another thing about Book Clubs is that discussing books is additional intellectual stimulation that these normally non-readers wouldn't be getting otherwise, so that's a good, too.

Stine said...

Except that the Oprah Book Club doesn't involve discussion, it involves Oprah saying, buy and read this book, and the sheep follow.

Proper book clubs, that meet once a month or so, are extremely powerful organizations as far as book marketing. Book clubs independently found and made the Ya-Ya book (I'm too lazy to look up the exacty title) a best-seller.