National poetry month is really kind of a sad affair. Fiction doesn’t get a month. Film doesn’t either. And TV—are you kidding. They get that section of the year that lasts (and I’m approximating) the entirety of every year, year after year. But poetry: that squirmy child alone in the back of the lunch room timidly opening the lunch box his mother modified with foam-rubber because, come on, he’s fragile and the corners might bruise his knees as he walks to school. Alone at the table, he organizes the box’s contents—a bag of carrots, sandwich, sippy cup—in some esoteric but exacting way that, despite his outward appearance of shunning attention, secretly begs for it. He endures in a constant state of conflict over the meaning of what attention he gets. Is uncomfortable. The other children scowl at him. They regard him with angry curiosity between their spoonfuls of chocolate Snack Pack. They dismiss him almost as quickly as they consider him. They say, “Oh, really? So, we still make creatures like that. Strange world.”
“It’s a shame,” the principal thinks, “such a smart, sensitive young man, with so much to say but no one to listen. A cruel world.” He shakes his head at the thought. He stews in its heavy cloud. Considers implications and solutions. Maybe a light. He sits a little taller, his eyes widening. His what-a-sad-sad-word thought grows and darkens. He realizes the profundity of its truth, realizes the extent of the injustice in the world, realizes, as the light comes on brighter, that he alone possesses the power and empathy to change the course of events if not in the history of mankind at least for this snot-nosed hypersensitive boy. He immediately flips the switch for the intercom and gives his baritone announcement:
“Now hear this. For too long the snot-nosed boy with the padded lunch box has been ignored. This will stop…
“…for one month.
“He is witty and wise beyond his years. His inner radiance is expressive in ways that you will never know because most of you little brats are content flicking your peas at the girl one table over who you pretend to hate but in fact are really scared to talk to and don’t want your friends to know you stare at all through Algebra II.
“So today is your day, Snot Nosed Boy. Stand and give them something so that they’ll finally see what I see.”
Utterly confused by the announcement, the students’ heads turn toward the boy cowering behind his carefully crustless sandwich. Finally, he finds his legs, speaks, and his classmates agree: while he’s still a dweeb, they don’t hate what he has to say as much as they thought they would. Fine, he can have his month. That’s it, though. And I don’t want him going on about it all day. Short and sweet.
He tries to hide the smile welling from places he forgot existed. He humbly agrees to the terms.
And just like that, April became Snot Nosed… I mean, National Poetry Month.
Poets—and even most writers, artists, and academics—if given the floor to talk, and especially if given a beer or two, can and will go on and on recounting the ways in which culture has left their art-of-choice high and dry. They’ll mention halcyon days of yore. They’ll mention green pastures and royalty checks, three o’clock martinis and agents sleeping on the steps of their Brooklyn brownstone for a word. Strangely enough, these essays/debates/diatribes are both necessary and utterly ridiculous. They’re ridiculous because they’re almost always addressed to the choir—a pool of readers/listeners who feel the same way, differing only on the particulars and maybe the degree to which one starts to glow bright red when making the argument.
Yet, I do see some redemption in justifying one’s passion: it’s in the rethinking of it; why it’s important, its effect; its beauty; its exuberance. Look around, all things that are truly and personally important are constantly debated, argued over, and justified. Communists debate Marxism, Wall Street debates capitalism, the states debate democracy, Christians debate the Bible. (Christians not only debate their Good Book, but every Sunday when they go to church, they communally profess their faith to its (the Bible’s) core teachings, and not because it waivered in the intervening six days since they last spoke those words, but because they find it validating, comforting, and of the utmost importance.)
Poetry/art does not have a profession of faith—and I’m not advocating one—so must on its own terms validate its position and prominence in culture.
It is easy enough to see the effects of politics on your life even if you’re not particularly political and never care to pick up a newspaper: roads are built, taxes levied, laws created. Same’s true for religion, even if you are not particularly religious. In a slightly more abstract way, religion, all religions, and their accompanying system of ethics and cultural mores and stories, manipulate the balance of debates, change how society relates to the world, change the significance given to both material and intellectual matter.
As a quick example: before the 1960’s and American society’s mass introduction to the eastern religions (Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, etc.), vegetarianism and veganism were almost unheard of as cultural phenomena. Yet after these “new” religions caught on, after their moral systems were unpacked, American society came not only to tolerate but to demand that these systems be recognized—today, how many restaurants have zero vegetarian options? That’s only one very small example.
But then there’s art. Art as defined in its broadest possible terms: as painting, as poetry, as film, fiction, drama, sculpture, dance, etc. A wormy practice of production that make useless products (at least in a utilitarian sense) that can’t easily be identified or described, have no real system of values, and in fact, have no real system at all. Saving the question as to what art is for some other time, let’s move right on to what it does and how it shapes culture. The simplest answer is to say it does nothing. Really. It does nothing. Nothing is what it does: it’s where it gets its power. We cannot make demands of art like we can of religion and politics (build me a road, or, bring me salvation), but it can talk about them, it can show them from different angels and repeat the arguments in terms that shock the listener out of cliché, out of constraints. Art clarifies the way we see the world, dictates how we talk about it, manipulates what we see as truly existing. Using the arguments of politics and religion, of science and philosophy, it twists the stuff of day-to-day life into a new weave, puts the rug on the wall and says, you can look at it or you can walk over it, but either way the joke’s on you: this is who you are. If Thomas Mann was right when he said, “Speech is civilization itself,” then art, at once both the simplest and most complex form of communication, is civilization saying what it’s like to be a speaker: alive, thinking, above the world’s constraints and knee deep in its muck.
I forget this, as I’m sure most do. So, I probably agree with the principal’s decision to make the school pay attention to the snot-nosed kid in the back of the lunch room, at least for some small portion of a month. Maybe then we’d see what he really does and free him of explaining, if even just to himself, his reasons for existing… Though, on second thought, all the attention in the world probably won’t stop his existential doubts; maybe tamper them, make them less manic. Let’s hope.