Critical Approaches to Ignoring National Poetry Month

Pack elephant advertising National Poetry Month

On not ‘marking poetry’s important place in our culture and our lives.’

Why do you celebrate National Poetry Month? Is it because in your breast there smoulders a conflagration so fierce that the only hope of ever cooling yourself is to let it explode out through the tinder of words in a sheet of flames and a shower of sparks? Or is it because someone made it up and told you to celebrate it? If you regard poets’ annual April-appropriation with scepticism (and, honestly, do you let anyone else take over a month?), I have some critical coping strategies for you.

1) The Anti-Sabbatarian Approach. For the serious reader of poetry, National Poetry Month is an arbitrary, unjustifiable singling-out of a time span as special just because someone decides to fill it with verse. In fact, every month should be sanctified for poetry. Similarly, in the seventeenth century, at the height of the Sabbatarian controversy, far from ‘observing the Sabbath with a Judaic austerity, some were for rejecting “Lord’s-days” altogether; asserting, they need not any; because in their elevated holiness, all days to them were Lord’s-days.’ National Poetry Month is just another made-up feast day to be abolished by the true believers.

2) The Self-Determination Approach. You’ll have noticed that the first word of National Poetry Month is ‘national,’ and you probably know that that nation is the United States. Yet the nature of the Internet and the loudness of the American voice mean that this ‘national’ poetry month has universal pretensions. In the same way that you now have Tibetan herders filling out March Madness brackets, you have much of the poetry-reading world lowing under the yoke of a cultural imperialism. (What form this is supposed to take I don’t know. I imagine school children from Iceland writing letters to Marilyn Hacker.) If you don’t believe me, wait until you see how many non-American poets join in with their peers in the U.S. on Twitter. But remember what the U.N. says, both in their charter and in the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples: ‘all peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.’ In other words, as the world contains a huge variety of poems, it’s up to all the nations of the world to decide when to celebrate poetry as they wish. You don’t have to accept globalisation. More like ‘Notional Poetry Month,’ amirite?

3) The Supertask Approach. Consider the following. There is an infinite number of possible poems. Now imagine a machine that prints all the possible poems on to a very long tape, and whenever the printer head gets close to the end of the tape a new length of tape is spliced on (by some sort of overseeing mechanism). So the tape is finite but also never runs out. The machine prints the first poem in one second, the second poem in half a second, the third poem in a quarter of a second, and so on. So it completes its task—printing all possible poems—in two seconds.

This is a supertask (the successful completion of an infinite number of tasks within a given time). Now imagine another machine: a parity machine. This machine looks at a tape of printed letters on each clock-beat and it tells you whether the letter it sees is odd or even (we will say that A is odd, B is even, and so on).

Now imagine that there is a parity machine working in tandem with the poetry-printing machine. It will display ‘odd’ or ‘even’ when it scans a letter being printed by the poetry-printing machine.

Here is the question: what is displayed on the parity machine’s screen at the end of the two seconds of running time? In other words, what is the last letter of the last possible poem, out of an infinite number of poems? The answer is that there is no answer, because either ‘odd’ or ‘even’ implies that infinity has an end-point.

You cannot process an infinite amount of poetry in a finite amount of time.

4) The Long-Distance Relationship Approach. According to some research, partners in long-distance relationships ‘engage in more adaptive self-disclosures and form more idealized relationship perceptions than do GC [geographically close] couples in the pursuit of intimacy across various interpersonal media.’ Limited face-to-face interactions ensure that, to keep the romance alive, such couples explore major issues like trust, love, and future plans (rather than having endless petty but explosive rows about where the marjoram goes).

Now doesn’t that sound like what you want?

Do you really want poetry in your face for thirty consecutive days (that’s 720 hours)? Is it really going to work out? Will poetry even be speaking to you at the end of it?

5) The Economic Sanctions Approach. Even the blithest reader of contemporary poetry is unlikely to be entirely happy with the state of the art. At least this is not my experience. And this dissatisfaction is especially likely to be directed at the big institutions, for their slowness or unwillingness to address systemic problems of dwindling public arts funding, casualisation of labour in higher education and its impact on poets and critics, race and gender underrepresentation in publishing, etc. And I am not talking specifically about the Academy of American Poets, the founders of the ‘festival.’ Major publishers, print, online, and broadcast media, universities, large arts organisations, and even the government all get in on the act.

And yet these are the very institutions which refuse to be held to account. And what do you imagine the best way is to deliver the message ‘We are unhappy with your conduct’? Sanctions. Boycott. Don’t read what they want you to read when they want you to read it. Deny them the assets they need to defy your will. Refuse point-blank to read a Billy Collins poem this April. The mind you save may be your own.

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