April 1st marks the beginning of National Poetry Month and I want you to restrain yourself from dashing around trying to find a single book or anthology of poetry where you call home. If you do have one, it likely is something you brought home from college or an older relative gave you as a birthday gift. Poetry does not line our bookshelves and plays virtually no role in our lives these days unless you are older and developed a liking for it in your youth.
I not only liked it, but wrote it in younger days. In 1972, Pocket Books, a division of Simon and Schuster, actually published a softcover collection of my poems. Two years earlier, I had attended the annual Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College in the Vermont town of the same name to write an article about it for Publishers Weekly magazine, then and now the bible of the book industry. Some of the nation’s best known poets led seminars; Galway Kinnell, Miller Williams, and Maxine Kumin were among them. If you don’t recognize their names, few others do either.
This is not to say they didn’t write some wonderful poetry, but rather to point out that poets in our present times have sunk from sight, are rarely noted in popular print or broadcast media. The last time I saw a poet on television it was Richard Blanco, reading a poem of his at President Obama’s second inaugural. It was a forgettable poem and it was obvious that the only reason Blanco was there was because, as the DailyBeast.com prominently noted he was “Hispanic, openly gay, and the youngest inauguration poet ever.” He was there for political, not poetic reasons.
By contrast, John F. Kennedy invited Robert Frost, perhaps the most recognizable of poets in his time to share his inauguration.
It may surprise you to know that the U.S. has had an official Poet Laureate when legislation was passed to change the name of the post from the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. The position dates back to the 1930s and was held by men and women of real distinction as poets. There was Robert Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Gwendolyn Brooks, and, at present, Natasha Trethewey. If you have not read a line of their poetry, don’t feel bad, most other Americans have not either.
I have been a book reviewer for more than fifty years and a founder in 1974 of The National Book Critics Circle. I rarely take note of any poet in my monthly report on new books, Bookviews.com. I do, however, recommend a good anthology of poetry when I find one and the last one was “The Seashell Anthology of Great Poetry” in 1996, almost twenty years ago. It encompasses poets from Shakespeare to the moderns.
I receive requests daily to review all manner of books, but I always turn away those for poetry. It’s not that I don’t like poetry, but experience has taught me that, if I take note of an individual poet’s book, I will be besieged by countless others. I don’t like turning poets away from my door and, if truth be told, I haven’t read much poetry written since the days of Robert Frost. Too much of it abandons the rules of poetry, from rhyming to cadence. It is more often than not prose masquerading as poetry.
In the April 1st edition of The Wall Street Journal, Joseph Epstein, an author, took note of National Poetry Month in a commentary, “The Poetic Justice of April 1”, April Fool’s Day.
He called the writing of poetry “an archaic practice, a dead genre, a done deal” and there is some truth in that if one aspires to be a published poet with expectations of being acknowledged anywhere than poetry journals.
“When was the last time you bought a book of verse by a contemporary poet?” asked Epstein. “My guess is around the same time that I did—the 12th of never.” Like the song that says, “Momma, don’t let your sons grow up to be cowboys”, Epstein advised today’s parents whose children announce they want to be poets to send them “off to bed without any dinner, and return to your place on the couch before the television set.”
Don’t do that. Encourage any child to read and write poetry. It is a gateway to their soul, a wise mentor to the ways of mankind. Buy them a book of Dylan Thomas’s extraordinarily magical poems or Emily Dickinson’s and Edna St. Vincent’s Millay’s insights to the human heart. Give them the joy of Lewis Carroll. Let them discover Walt Whitman and Robert Frost.
When I need solace or inspiration in my life, I read poetry. If it takes National Poetry Month to remind us of this great body of literature, that’s okay with me. There is so much wisdom to be found in poetry that I cannot imagine a life well spent without it.
Alan Caruba, 2013