Versify the fisticuff, begin the poetic revolution

In April, animals that have been sleeping for months come back out and mate with each other furiously. Connecticut’s Gray Squirrel, half-starved and nervous, emerges from out its tree-hole burrow and searches for hidden nuts and other nervous rodents. The bugs come back and pollinate plants. People are happy again and strive to imitate their floral and faunal brethren: Newly awake and aware of their paleness, they leave their rooms and gather on green lawns, exposing their bodies to the sun and each other. Sometimes there is a barbecue. Occasionally, a guitar.

There should be more poems.

April is National Poetry Month, which means that everyone who has ever read “The Wasteland” gets to make a joke, and everyone who hasn’t gets to punch them in their glasses. Every year since 1996, following Black History and Women’s History months, the Academy of American Poets sponsors a flurry of readings, discussions, publicity campaigns and store discounts in an effort to publicize poetry’s continued relevance in the national discourse. Signs with lines from “The Idea of Order at Key West” go up in buses next to advertisements for cell phones, seventh-graders recite Edgar Allen Poe to their teachers and a few people buy books they wouldn’t have otherwise. Every year, someone like Charles Bernstein attacks the month as frivolous and middlebrow, and someone like Billy Collins thumbs his nose and sells thousands of books.

It’s all pretty ridiculous, actually. As many have noted, dedicating a month to poets a la Black History Month or Women’s History Month is a laughably romantic conception of the tortured artist par excellence and assumes that poetry is in fact in danger — which it may very well be. The cynic in anyone can find fault with a marketing ploy aimed at moving books, and just about anybody can find the idea of forcing local businesses to offer discounts to those holding the day’s assigned poem (Poetry-in-Your-Pocket’s second tip for encouraging community involvement) patently absurd.

Still, though, it’s hard to hate National Poetry Month without feeling like either an elitist or a philistine. Its heart is in the right place. That the body is not — that the month’s large-scale structure can be alienating, that the pressure to please (and not offend) crowds can limit the exposure of more experimental work, that the month take’s poetry’s importance as a given — is why we are here today, why we’ve bombarded this page of the News.

Yale, it’s time for poetry to be dangerous again.

On this page, you’ll see a gorgeous poem by John Ashberry, a moving testament to verse by one of Yale’s premier professors of English literature and a light-hearted debate about whether or not poetry matters. Everything stresses the complete primacy of poetry’s connection to life, to thought. We aren’t really sure if poetry is everywhere, only that it can be if you choose it. “Does Poetry Matter” is not a question with an easy or an obvious answer, and it shouldn’t have one, but it is a question that deserves to be asked, to be fought about, if poetry is to have any chance of becoming a concern on more days of the year than April’s 30. It’s a question we want to ask, without being sure of a “correct” answer, or the existence of an answer at all.

We want to fight about it. If we are to keep poetry vital, keep it true to life, it cannot be categorically praised, or kept safe. Sometimes, we may have to insult it, or come to blows over it. We want poetry to be something that you not only read or occasionally talk about, but something that informs your thoughts, something that makes you fall in love, something that gets you slapped. We want poetry to, if you so choose, to get you kicked out of bars, make you quit your job. And we want to talk to you about it. Mono-e-mono. We are the Yale Lit, and we are challenging you to a fist fight.

This page is more than an attempt for awareness and a call-to-arms. Earlier today the two of us were thinking about the old romantic gesture of the poetry movement, that last bastion of youthful ideals, roguishness and laudanum. If Yale had a poetry movement, we asked, where would it be? Not LC, we decided — too many lectures, too much canon. Rudy’s, the obvious choice, was ruled out due to stringent identification requirements — Rimbaud, after all, was 19 when he penned Un Saison enfer. And Atticus — despite its admirable program of offering free bread this month to anyone reading a poem aloud to the patrons at its tables — is too expensive.

We were depressed until we realized the obvious: Yale does have a poetry movement. It’s in The Lit, it’s in the English and literature departments, it’s in spoken word groups like Word and Oye and Jook Songs, it’s in literary societies like Crotonia, it’s in any number of campus publications that publish a poem or two here and there — in short, it’s in every student here who cares about poetry as a force to be reckoned with. It just sleeps sometimes. We hope that this April can bring not only an appreciation of National Poetry Month but a renewed vigor of poetic activity, of upthrust, of the essential violence of spring. Ashberry talks a little about “a ballade/ that takes in the whole world, now, but lightly, Still lightly,” but let’s be a little more rude than that. This time, let’s have the revolution be versified.

Jordan Jacks and Zelda Roland are co-editors in chief of the Yale Literary Magazine.

This column is part of the News’ op-ed page tribute to Poetry Month.

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