National Poetry Month

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National Poetry MonthApril is National Poetry Month in Canada. I don’t know if this gets widespread acknowledgement much less appreciation among the public and in the schools, but it should.

Poetry is an important part of our cultural lives, although it seems to me our collective passion for it has waned over the past few decades. I blame MTV, video games, rap music, Stephen Harper and cuts to education budgets. And maybe the phase of the moon. Whatever the cause, we seem to have less poetry in our lives, in our souls than we did in the past.

Okay, I don’t know why we don’t seem to have such a national passion for poetry as we once have, nor why we don’t value our poets as much as we once did, but I have my suspicions that it stems from our current popular culture, although the precise mechanism eludes me. Can observance of this event help rekindle our passion for poetry? Maybe – if anyone aside from the poets takes up the torch to publicize it.

According to Poets.ca:

Established in Canada in April 1998 by the League of Canadian Poets (LCP), National Poetry Month (NPM) brings together schools, publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, and poets from across the country to celebrate poetry and its vital place in Canada’s culture. The year 2015 marks the 17th anniversary of National Poetry Month in Canada.

This year we are encouraging poets and hosts to explore and savour the theme of Food and Poetry… we want to investigate the ways in which “food is personal, political, sensual and powerful”.

There’s also a Mayor’s Poetry Challenge,

Begun in 2012, the Challenge is an annual initiative through which municipal councils across Canada open their Council meetings with a reading from a local poet. The aim is for local communities to celebrate poetry, writing, small presses and the contribution of poets and all writers to the rich cultural life in our country.

I don’t recall reading about this when I was on council, nor can I recall anyone in office locally taking up the challenge. Which may not be because no one cares – it may simply be under-promoted. So I’ve sent it to our Mayor and hope she takes it on. Maybe it will spread.

I was in a book store last week and stopped by the poetry section to find it thin and underfed. The section on teen reads about vampires and werewolves was replete with titles; but in the poetry section, I couldn’t find anything on the shelves by Irving Layton or Leonard Cohen. There were more titles stocked in the store for gluten-free diet fads than there were of national poets.

Which makes me wonder if, given the food-based theme for 2015, someone could write a poem about the gluten-free scam/hoax…

I think I have more books of poetry on my own shelves than I saw there. Which is a sad statement on the state of our bookstores.

Flashback: In the early 1970s, I worked in several Toronto bookstores. I even owned and ran my own bookstore on Baldwin Street for a year, but it wasn’t very successful. I ended up working as a sales rep for McLelland and Stewart publishers during which time I sold works by Cohen, Layton and other Canadian authors – and poets – to booksellers around the province. New releases by poets were greeted eagerly by booksellers and orders flowed. Canadian poets were popular and much discussed.

Why are they less so, now? Thanks to the internet, there are more resources for poets available, more ways to connect, to get read, to exchange ideas and to build an audience. But I rarely hear about or read about poets and poetry in the news, let alone in social conversation. I read nothing about National Poetry Month in the media, local or national. I stumbled over it in a Google search today.

Nor did I read about UNESCO’s World Poetry Day, March 21, which celebrates poetry because:

Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings.
Poetry is the mainstay of oral tradition and, over centuries, can communicate the innermost values of diverse cultures.

Is that because there’s nothing poetic happening for the media to report on, or is the current generation of reporters simply uninterested in poetry? Is poetry perceived as too intellectual a pastime?

I remember back in the late 1960s and early 70s the abrupt and startling popularity of the books of poems by Rod McKuen – and the subsequent, bitter scholarly diatribes against his work: “…poetry with a verse that drawled in country cadences from one shapeless line to the next…” Yet he sold millions of copies and gave readings to packed audiences.

Would any book of poetry, or any single poet today generate such emotional response? Or such sales? I doubt it.

This sea change in our poetic appreciation isn’t new, nor is it unique to Canada. UK writer Philip Hensher wrote in the Telegraph in 2011,

Despite all the prizes and the publicity, there is a sense that poetry is losing its way; that it has not quite found the audience today that, surely, it deserves. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that poetry today never, or almost never, sells at all.

Or is it that our understanding and appreciation of poetry has been diluted to the point where people take it for granted? Has it become a “vacuous synonym for excellence or unconsciousness” as Donald Hall mused in 2001 on Poets.org?

The relevance of poetry has been argued for at least a century, maybe more. Sometimes it has sparked acrimonious and energetic debate – always a good thing when it engages public commentary – as it did when Joseph Epstein wrote his essay Who Killed Poetry? back in 1988. In it, he wrote,

…it was during the 1950’s that poetry last had this religious aura. Many of the high priests of the cult—T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams, E. E. Cummings and W. H. Auden—were still alive and still writing, even if the best of their work was already behind them. The audience for poetry was then less than vast; it had diminished greatly since the age of Browning and Tennyson…
…however much contemporary poetry may be honored, it is, outside a very small circle, scarcely read. Contemporary poetry is no longer a part of the regular intellectual diet. People of general intellectual interests who feel that they ought to read or at least know about works on modern society or recent history or novels that attempt to convey something about the way we live now, no longer feel the same compunction about contemporary poetry. The crowds in London once stood on their toes to see Tennyson pass; today a figure like Tennyson probably would not write poetry and might not even read it. Poetry has been shifted—has shifted itself?—off center stage. Literarily, poetry no longer seems in any way where the action is. It begins to seem, in fact, a sideline activity, a little as chiropractic or acupuncture is to mainstream medicine—odd, strange, but with a small cult of followers who swear by it.

Pretty contentious stuff. It galvanized people to respond and still does. But has the response affected the popularity of poetry? I don’t think so. Of course, I can draw only from my own limited world of observation. I am not a poet, do not attend poets’ forums or belong to their social media cliques. I am merely a reader, sometimes avid, sometimes blase, of the art. I stand in awe of those who can craft poems that move, excite, intrigue or entertain me.

Still, it seems to me we have less poetry in our cultural and social lives than before. And I think that’s not good for us: poetry has been a mainstay of civilization since humans first learned to speak. It’s not likely to die out soon, but its influence as an art is shrinking. Maybe attention to events like National Poetry Month and recognition of local poets can help stem that tide, can infuse more poetry into our daily lives.

I don’t know. I can only hope someone – and someone local – tries.

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