World Poetry Day

PoetryToday, March 21, is World Poetry Day. Do you care? Not that I’m cynical about poetry – I think it’s important stuff. Poetry is far more important than, say, hockey. The Kardashians. The Oscars. The budget. The latest iPhone or iPad. A cute puppy or kitten video on Facebook. The latest anti-science fad. Or fad diet. It’s even more important than the US election.

But that’s a hard sell to a culture with the average attention span lower than that of a goldfish.

Whoever gets elected in the US in November will get into the history books, but the campaigns and the brouhaha will soon be forgotten. They’ll just be noise for the historians to sift through generations from now. I’m sure if current generations are even really aware of, or even care about the issues facing them – certainly the past is a foreign country to them, especially their own past.

Does anyone still talk about the federal election of 1917? What were the campaign issues, who was running, what were their parties? The leaders? Does anyone still talk about the Unionist Party and its motives? Yet that same year, T. S. Eliot’s Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock was published and it’s still being read and quoted. “I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas… ”

Most folk couldn’t tell you who won the Stanley Cup a decade ago, let alone in 1923, without resorting to Google. But William Carlos Williams’ poem from that year – colloquially known as The Red Wheelbarrow (poem XXII from Spring and All) – is still read and treasured:

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

Poetry is often seen by the illiterati as elitist, effeminate, too braniac. It’s not and limericks about a fellow McSweeny and other topics show poetry can be as salacious and crude as anything on TV. But it does take a little more attention span and grey matter to read and write than is needed to glue one’s beady little squinties on any “reality” TV show or hockey game. Well, reading generally does, so poetry isn’t unique that way.

We’re still reading and quoting poetry that’s 500 years old. Most us us couldn’t tell you who was the ruler of Britain or France or China back then, but their poets survive in print and memory. In fact, we are still reading the earliest poems written – more than 4,500 years old. And we are still finding new ways to explore and enjoy them.

Some of us, anyway. I have the dark suspicion we are getting fewer every year. John Keats said, “The Poetry of the earth is never dead.” But its aficionados may soon be. Perhaps in some future AI robots will read it and quote lines back and forth – and poetry will continue its longevity.

Or maybe they’ll all be broken mechanical shells from having encountered the “poetry” of Kanye West which immediately shattered their programming on the realization that intelligent life on earth died off in in the early 21st century:

So we forced to sell crack rap and get a job
You gotta do something man your ass is grown
Drug dealin jus to get by stack ya money till it gets sky high
Kids Sing Kids Sing
We wasnt supposed to make it past 25 but the jokes on you we still alive
Throw your hands up in the sky and say we don’t care what people say

Excuse me, but I believe my lunch is asking to be rapidly let out of my stomach after that experience… Okay, okay, I know pop music isn’t always high art. Wop bop a loo op a lop bam boom and all that. But there is sufficient good, intelligent, lyrical, memorable pop music that does qualify for the term poetic. Please, shoot me now if the general consensus is that this pap above is even in the same province as good pop lyrics.

Okay, I’m a snob. I prefer a definition of poetry as something more than just words garbled together or “whatever comes into your little brain at the moment.” How about the “…art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts.” Good enough for me.

No, it’s not poetry that’s the problem, but the casual way people declare World Anything Day. Or National Something Day. International Anything Day. World Laughter Day. National Hug Day. International Louie Louie Day. International Yoga Day. World UFO Day. Talk Like a Pirate Day. Coffee Day. We have an International Bacon Day, ferthorssake.

All of which just shows how trivial this sort of appellation is (okay, we also have an International Chess Day, but that’s actually important…;-). Which is too bad, because there are important, relevant, meaningful things to celebrate or at least ponder (aside from chess). A dedicated day helps us focus on them, give them media attention – good idea. It’s just we have too many of them. Days, not media.

World Water Day, for example, which is March 22. That’s important pretty much everywhere in the world except Collingwood. Days for press freedom, international justice, women’s equality, mental health are all important issues. And poetry. Let’s not forget poetry, because it, too, is important to human civilization, culture and history. As UNESCO – the sponsor of World Poetry Day – says on its website:

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.
In celebrating World Poetry Day, March 21, UNESCO recognizes the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind.

And we even have a National Poetry Month – April, which, fortunately for us, is celebrated the same month in Canada, so it’s not confusing like Thanksgiving. And with that, I will retire to the living room to browse through a collection of English poems in honour of today. Am I supposed to have a glass of sherry with that?

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