It’s National Poetry Month. Hm.

So we got a book to review, which is always cause for celebration. It's this:

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a book of poetry especially for tweens. And I am simultaneously pleased and disturbed.

It's
an age-old question (or is it? Maybe): does classifying things help
them find their audience, or ghetto-ize them?

Here's what I think I
mean: it seems to me that the only things that have their own month or
day are those things that people feel need extra attention. Ie: there
is no national fiction month, or national memoir month (though
apparently there is a National Novel-Writing Month, or there was,
once). It makes the thing they're trying to save seem somehow…weak. Pathetic. Ailing. Another person (Charles Bernstein, in fact, whose book is reviewed in this Sunday's New York Times Book Review) said it much better than I can (that is really very much worth reading).

And so I wonder. Does it need this special kid-glove treatment? People have long predicted the demise of poetry, but
my former professor once intoned (he never really said, only intoned):
"Poetry will never die, as long as people write it. And every person I
have ever met has tried to write a poem, at least once."

So when they make a special book of poetry just for middle school age
kids, I am wary. Factor in a decidedly "cool"-looking (as opposed to
cool-looking cover) and I feel like I'm seeing something that in trying
to win people over isn't being true to itself. And I suppose I also believe that there is
something especially excellent about finding poetry on your own, rather
than having it packaged and sold to you. And partly there is just a
taint to grownups like myself and the publishers, editors, and poets
who put the book together, trying to be offer up literary recommendations. God knows that my
recommendation will kill a book's appeal in my kids' eyes almost immediately.

But.

It's
also true that to find poetry on your own, it has to be somewhere
around, and so we should be grateful that someone is putting it out
there into the trembling emotional hands of middle schoolers
(seriously, who needs it more than 13 year old girls writing their
heartfelt feelings in their journals?). And so off my high horse and on
to the book itself.

The poems are about things that kids are interested in, or are supposed to be interested in: youth itself, being a teenager, kissing, mascara, friends. And I wonder if that's right, somehow. I know Diana's favorite poet is Yeats, and it's not the poem about lost youth and love  (When You Are Old) that is included here. Instead, she loves The Second Coming. (I know, I know, how messed up is it that I will let her read The Second Coming and not YA novels about rape?) And I wonder about the difference there. She read a few of the poems here, and she thought they were "pretty good," but that's different than being grabbed by the throat by an amazing poem and having your whole worldview changed. Which is sort of what I hope for, from poetry.

I don't know. I miss Frank O'Hara (who wrote one of my all time favorite poems that just found me on a certain day and killed me); I miss a certain looseness that I would hope for; I love that Ogden Nash is here; I love that there is a mix of poets across centuries; I love that there are all sorts of different poets; I wish they had chosen a different Shakespeare sonnet.

It's great, I think, that there is one more collection of poems out there for people to find the thing that means something to them. I am grateful to the editors and publishers for that. And it is just the truth that for some stupid, probably small-minded reason, I will always be skeptical of things like this. It would probably be better for me if this weren't so.

2 thoughts on “It’s National Poetry Month. Hm.

  1. All I know is that it wouldn’t have worked for me. I would have read a book like that (mainly because at that age I read anything that came my way), but I preferred to find things on my own – not reading stuff someone I didn’t even know had selected out for me. Sounds pretentious, I know. I think I just resented the selection part: “We know what you’ll like, now eat it up”.

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  2. The thing about poetry, for me at least, is that most of the poems I read don’t move me. Every once in a while, one does, and that is magic. Nearly applicable quotation: “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” – Mark Twain. So if you’re a kid who hasn’t been exposed to much poetry, you might think you don’t like any of it. What’s the best way to encourage a kid to keep reading it until they find some lightning?
    My hometown partnered with its public transit system and put poetry on bus ads and transfers. For someone like me, who reads even advertisements compulsively, that worked very well. For more reluctant readers, something else might be needed, but I like the idea of integrating poetry into life, rather than, as you said, giving it a separate month that only serves to ghetto-ize it.
    And yes, National Novel Writing Month is still going, and getting bigger every year.

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