poems of the people

I heard that you ask’d for something to prove this puzzle the New World,
And to define America, her athletic Democracy,
Therefore I send you my poems that you behold in them what you wanted.
– walt whitman

it’s april.  which means it is, once again, national poetry month—that time of year when poets try like hell to get non-poets to give a shit about poetry.  (i kid because i care.)  if we are to believe the poetry foundation’s 2006 report, poetry in america, then 64% of adult readers think that people should read more poetry.  not only that, but while more than 80% of former poetry readers find poetry difficult to understand, only 2% of poll respondents didn’t read poetry because they felt it was “too hard.”  to me, this sounds suspiciously like all those nielsen families who over-report the amount of time they spent watching pbs.

but i’d like to give the poetry foundation huge props for trying something different this year.  last fall, they asked america “what’s your favorite poem?” and, god bless them, americans responded.  i’m not even talking about the obvious respondents: professors, mfa students, and sullen/lovelorn teenagers.  no, i’m talking about the people you didn’t think gave a shit about poetry.

the favorite poem project has some pretty fantastic video footage of everyday americans not just reading a poem, but talking at length about what that poem—and poetry—means to them.  you’ll see a jamaican immigrant talking about sylvia plath, a marine reading yeats, a construction worker waxing about whitman, hillary clinton (and her husband) reciting some verse, and dozens of others.  it’s enough to make you believe that, goddamn right, poetry is not dead.

still, on more than one occasion, i’ve found myself siding with the non-poetry crowd, those who say the knock against much contemporary poetry is that it’s not—what’s the word?  accessible.  i don’t recall ever thinking that poetry should be *easy* mind you.  but damn if there haven’t been some times when i’ve seen a contemporary poem and just thought, “you’re fucking with me, aren’t you? you fucker.”

that being said, i recently got a piece of direct mail from the poetry foundation, and in it was a quote attributed to the magazine’s editor, don share.  that single sentence is, perhaps, the best counter-argument to that “accessibility” issue that i’ve ever heard:

The value of reading contemporary poems, apart from the considerable pleasure of thinking about what they’re up to, is that it gets us to focus our attention and sharpen our critical skills, things we need more than ever in an age, like ours, of distraction.

i swear, i’m ]this[ close to subscribing to poetry magazine myself.


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