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Verses Reign in April

April is National Poetry Month, which was invented by the Academy of American Poets. I like National Months, and I like celebrating poetry. The Academy offers a bounty of celebratory resources at its web site, Poets.org. A big section for educators ought to be particularly helpful.

Kidlitosphere Central, a handy gateway to the children's literature blogs, kindly links to many poetry-related goings-on during the month of April. (Click on "News" at the top.) A few highlights:

"30 Poets/30 Days." A poem a day by children's poets. at Gregory Pincus's GottaBook.

"Poetry Makers." Interviews with children's poets, at The Miss Rumphius Effect.

"Poetry Tag." More poetry from well-known children's book authors, at Poetry for Children.

Moving on to poetry for grown-ups, I'll point to Martin Earl's prickly essay about National Poetry Month, at the Poetry Foundation,   

Ninety-eight percent of the reading public is not interested, or simply doesn’t have the specific training to read verse. The training is the crux, just one of the ineluctable facts that institutional April bypasses. A reader can’t just pick up Chaucer, (or Dante, or [...]

Earl goes on to say that even a lot of poets don't read Chaucer, but they should. When they do, though, they'll start losing readers because their work will become too hard to follow. Or something. Is the essay the howl of an unread poet? Is Earl's attitude indicative of why poetry is not more popular? No one likes to be called stupid, after all.


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You need specific training to read verse? Since when? *is perturbed*

Yeah. One may find high-school English class helpful when reading Chaucer, but c'mon. That's a very narrow definition of "verse."

I don't know. That essay was kind of weird. He seems to be going back and forth between saying that poetry is inaccessible to most people (even other poets??) to saying that poetry is vital to individuals and nations? His point was not at all clear to me, even after a second reading. Maybe he should skip the prose and stick to poetry because, you know, prose is not poetry after all. You shouldn't need special training to understand it.

I love reading poetry, or verses of rhyme to my child, but would rarely pick up poetry aiming at an adult audience. We never really covered poetry at school, and there is a part of me intimidated by it. Perhaps I should push myself more to indulge in it.

I am posting the following response from Martin Earl, who was not able to post a comment earlier. I apologize for that; I've been trying to keep out the spammers, not the real people! --Susan (Chicken Spaghetti)

I'm glad you bring up the "special understanding" issue. A lot of things need special understanding in today's world. You wouldn't try to fix your car, but you don't even have to try to drive it. It's much easier to understand digital photography if you have a firm understanding of analogue (film) photography, unless you just want to put your digital camera on automatic and shoot away. In that case, the camera is making all your decisions for you, which is not photography. Poets, more than other writers, feed off their tradition, which stretches back to Chaucer and beyond. The more profoundly one explores the tradition, the more it is apt to enter into one's poetry. People who are not trained in the tradition will not understand how contemporary poets are using it. Most people in school read Chaucer in translation and couldn't name his dominant verse form. So when they come to W.H. Auden's "Letter to Lord Byron" for example, they don't know where Auden is getting the form, or what he's doing technically, so their appreciation is not as full as it might be. (That's what I mean, Kelly - above - about specific training). I certainly wasn't holding up Chaucer (Susan) "as a definition of verse", just as an example of where one might start to learn how to appreciate something that wasn't written yesterday.

At any rate, thanks Theresa and others for your comments. I'm always happy to find people following my work. "And Troilus to Troie homward he wente."

Martin, thanks for your response. One reason I linked to your essay at the Poetry Foundation blog was because it was a contrast to the celebratory goings-on at a number of the children's book blogs. Reading your words made me think.

I can't argue at all with "People who are not trained in the tradition will not understand how contemporary poets are using it." But do degrees of appreciation matter? I'd say that appreciation in itself is okay.

I do think degrees of appreciation matter, especially since the more one appreciates the more one will be apt to try to find out why. This is the beginning of curiosity and aesthetic pleasure. Poetry (except for the Latin and Greek classics) was the only thing I read from front to back, starting with the contemporary and gradually taking up earlier and earlier poets. Chaucerian English came to feel more natural through an understanding of the historical development of our language, and by learning Old English and French. I really didn’t learn to work with forms until I was well into my twenties and had left the United States. I’d appreciated Keats and Byron, Donne and Skelton, of course, but I appreciated them more once I learned to work with form as a poet. I have a great love for the 17th and 18th century because it is a poetry of content and not complaint. The modern paradigm of the private life had not yet fully developed, and poetry, until the mid-18th century, was still a more sophisticated rhetorical tool than English prose.

But I am very much a contemporary poet. I write in form sometimes and more openly at other times. I don’t like the expression “free verse,” because verse is never free. Even Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris in prose has nothing to do with the prose logic of Huysman’s À rebours, though both are informed by a very similar symbolist aesthetic.

Wallace Stevens said that “poetry is the scholars art.” The more time that you spend with the stuff, the more scholarly you become – and he wasn’t talking about academic scholarship. As everyone knows, he steered about as clear as he could from Academe.

In your e-mail you asked if I read any children’s poetry. I was actually raised on the stuff. My mother was tireless in that – it was the only thing that could keep me quiet. But now I am finally coming to a greater appreciation of it, but in Portuguese. My wife’s uncle, a wonderful poet, is writing a book of children’s poetry. I’ve read some of it and it’s gorgeous and I’ve come to understand through him how difficult it is to write. So it is something of my list. After all, to be still writing poetry as an adult, whether for adults or for children, you have to have something of the child in you.

Literary criticism and literary journalism are another matter altogether. It’s important to keep your blades honed.

At any rate, thanks for giving me the space to respond.

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