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National Poetry Month: The Health Report by Travis Mossotti

And so another April begins. A month where the poetry community in America, fractured and bitter as it may be, feels compelled by nationalistic pride or obligation to reassess the health and status of poetry in the country. The Academy of American Poets website says it is a time when “poets around the country band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture.” They (like so many) feel reinvigorated by springtime’s optimism and view the month as an opportunity to bring new readers into the fold. Of course, others are not so hopeful or cheery. Poetry for example, chose to mark the occasion by plastering an excerpt from David Orr on the back cover of the April issue that starts off: “There is almost nothing tinier than the poetry world…” Luckily, most of us who write and read the stuff are happy to land somewhere in the middle. Not apathetic to poetry’s situation, but content with the fact that poetry has found its niche somewhere along the fringes of American culture. And while a few poets like Mary Oliver have found a way to reach a broader market of readers, becoming a household name doesn’t altogether seem like a fitting objective for poetry. Does it?

I mean, could you imagine NBC’s Nightly News with Robert Pinsky, Forbes Magazine: “The Poetry Issue,” or Sean Penn winning an Academy Award for his portrayal of “the speaker” in the film adaptation of Ilya Kaminsky’s, Dancing in Odessa? Of course, Pinsky did appear as a token judge of a Metaphor-Off on an episode of the Colbert Report, James Franco played Allen Ginsberg in the 2009 film Howl, and the film The Hurt Locker, which borrowed its title from a poem by Brian Turner, won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2010. And currently, PBS and NPR provide many occasions for contemporary poets to reach the larger American audience. I’ve seen Terrance Hayes reading a poem on the Charlie Rose Show, an episode of American Experience on Whitman that featured big names like Yusef Komunyakaa, Martin Espada, and Billy Collins, and no doubt The Writer’s Almanac has introduced contemporary poets big and small to an average audience of over two million listeners. But aside from these infrequent, quasi-mainstream surfacings, poetry still almost exclusively lives and breathes with the rest of the high arts on university campuses across the country.

Some might feel compelled to blame America’s public education system for poetry’s limited readership, and no doubt the system often obfuscates the craft by neglecting to teach poets who haven’t been fully vetted for more than 100 years. But then again, maybe it’s foolish to even imagine an American poetry readership that isn’t decidedly small in stature. I remember reading an interview with Robert Hass on Guernica Magazine’s website where he compared publishing figures from American poetry’s heyday at the beginning of the 1900’s (when Emily Dickinson’s first book of poems became a best-seller) to present day standards and found that not much has really changed in terms of audience. As Hass says, “her first book of poems went through eleven editions of a print run of about 400…for a country that had fifty million people in it. Now a first print run for a first book is maybe 2,000? So that’s a five-time increase in the expectation of readership. Probably the audience is almost exactly the same size as it was in 1900, if you just took that one example” (Read full Guernica Interview with Robert Hass).

But if a liberal education has at least some connection with building a poetry readership (as it surely did a hundred years ago), then with so many more American’s graduating with four-year-degrees from universities across the country, shouldn’t there be a respectively larger readership than there was in 1900? Maybe the problem then is not educational but cultural. Maybe entertainment, which used to be defined as an occasion to “better oneself,” was permanently redefined by the rollercoaster to suit more passive amusements like radio, television and cinema. Maybe the uniquely empathetic experience that poetry provides is asking too much from the still championed rugged individualism that gave birth to this country. Maybe the more gifted a person is with language in America, the more likely they are not to be trusted. Maybe poetry is bound to suffer the same fate as the internationally beloved sport of futbol—try as they might to repackage it, some connections were never meant to be forged.
Let’s be clear, I believe there will always be a want for connection, for community, at the very heart of the act of writing poetry; but as a poet I can say it’s also true that during the loneliest, most unshaven hours of composition or revision there already exists a private dialogue with the universe: a codified pattern of human experience falling apart into lines. And despite the familiar April cry for the American public to reinvest in their literary present by attending readings, buying books and supporting the literary arts, poetry will always have very simple desires; as Eliot said: “it remains, all the same, one person talking to another.” Poetry is intimate, wary of communal ballyhoos and calls to arms, and it usually waits for the air-raid sirens to whir quietly down before opening its mouth to speak. Poetry is, without a doubt, the purest and keenest handler of language; the best of it seeks a larger community without ever despairing for one.

Last night before bed, I read aloud a few of the early sections of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (the 1855 version, and “the purest text” by Malcolm Cowley’s estimation) to my very sleepy and pregnant wife and our little, sex-yet-undetermined-bun-in-the-oven wunderkind. The prenatal poetry readings have become a hallmark of our bedtime routine, Regina turning her belly towards me while I prop up on one elbow and read. Last night, I had the good fortune to rediscover (mid-recitation) a beautiful moment that could exist no place other than poetry: “I and this mystery here we stand” (I remember imparting the slightest pause between mystery and here, as though Whitman had crafted a doorway at that exact spot in the syntax for me to enter into the poem). And when I read it, I did so, slowly, with great pains taken towards pronunciation and clarity. Call it my humble attempt to precoddle our unborn into language.
In those intimate moments with Whitman my wife and our unborn child, I’m all but convinced that the American poetry community is right where it needs to be; that it is greater than the oases of intrepid publishers, independent bookstores, MFA programs and AWP conferences scattered across the American wasteland; that it is actually growing and stretching out across centuries at an alarming rate. So this April, I’m choosing to include all the dead American poets into my estimation of the community’s overall health. Dead poets like Whitman are a curious and perpetually blossoming group that is literally ignored in such discussions. But I charge you to go to your bookshelf, open any Norton Anthology and see what a community they make. They were writing for all of us, their community, the same as they were writing for their contemporaries; and so what if the dead Whitmans, Dickinsons, Frosts, etc, aren’t coming to your next poetry reading and book signing? At least they’ll be powerless to stop you from raiding their coffers in the latter hours of revision.