Tyne Daly reads "But I Can't" by W. H. Auden

In celebration of National Poetry Month, every day we're posting a new poem from the spoken-word album Poetic License, a three-CD set that features one hundred performers of stage and screen reading one hundred poems selected by the actors themselves. From Shakespeare and Dickinson to Lucille Clifton and Allen Ginsberg, the lineup spans contemporary American poetry and classics of the Western canon.

Wystan Hugh Auden (1907–1973) was an Oxford-educated English writer who entered poetic history with the volume Poems, published in 1930 following a private printing of a book of the same name in 1928. Also a respected librettist, essayist, translator, and playwright, Auden went on to publish dozens of poetry collections, including Another Time (Random House, 1940), which contains his often-anthologized poem "Musée des Beaux Arts"; For the Time Being (Random House, 1944); The Shield of Achilles (Faber and Faber, 1955); and Thank You, Fog: Last Poems (Random House, 1974). 

Tyne Daly is a stage and screen actress whose performance as Rose in Gypsy earned her a Tony Award in 1989. She appeared in television's Cagney and Lacey for six years, during which time she won four Emmy Awards for her performance as Detective Mary Beth Lacey. Daly is currently playing the role of Maria Callas in the Kennedy Center production of Master Class, which closes on April 18.

"But I Can't" by W. H. Auden, from Poetic License produced by Glen Roven. Copyright © 2010 by GPR Records. Used with permission of GPR Records.  

Audio icon 02_But_I_Cant.mp31.54 MB

Myths We Live By, But Shouldn't: A Writer's Guide to Reality

David Galef

As writing is one of the desperate professions,” writes the copyright lawyer Richard Wincor in the opening of his book Literary Property, “it has universal appeal, especially for those who are not engaged in it.” To put it more cynically, as W. H. Auden does in The Prolific and the Devourer: “How often one hears a young man with no talent say when asked what he intends to do, ‘I want to write.’ What he really means is, ‘I don’t want to work.’”

Those committed to the craft realize that it does take work. And perhaps because many writers and their adherents are poorly paid and often go unrecognized, they cultivate a variety of myths—some about the creative process, others about the profession itself—to justify what they do, to cheer themselves up, to inhabit a mystique. Like certain well-traveled epigrams, many of the myths are half-true at best. Professional writers get tired of hearing them, even though some pay lip service to these bromides throughout long careers.

Don’t read—it’ll pollute the pure voice inside you. No serious writer or teacher believes this, but it’s a cherished credo among some budding scribblers. They want to write, but they don’t want to read other writers for fear of being influenced by them. They’ve heard of young writers aping Hemingway, perhaps, or T. S. Eliot. Not for them, the bookish route. Their voices will be all their own.

One could argue that the decision to avoid the practice of reading is compounded half of laziness and half of insolence, and, therefore, one only the novice tends to make. Serious writers understand the value of reading and are committed to it. Still, the choice not to read must be somewhat widespread, as many literary magazines complain that they have far more submitters than subscribers.

Rely solely on inspiration. Great art originates from some unknowable source: The idea will come to you if you wait for it. In practice, this belief is hard to keep if you’re writing anything over two pages long. An idea for a character or the opening line of a poem may indeed come to you, but sustained writing requires what the Germans call sitzfleisch, literally sit-flesh, the persistence to stay in the chair. A work of art is 10 percent inspiration, 90 percent perspiration. (Adjust the ratio to suit your own methods.)

I once took an informal poll at an artists colony and found that most of the people there believed persistence to be almost as important as talent. Writers need a daily regimen—waiting for the thunderbolt is too uncertain. Good writers know how to cultivate in-the-zone concentration. They also know how to arrange their lives to enable them to write. Where does inspiration come in? Novelist Peter DeVries once noted that he wrote only when he was inspired, but that he made sure he was inspired at nine o’clock every morning.

A good poem has an inevitability about it, with all the right words in the right order. This assertion is tempting to believe, especially as a corrective to the kind of sloppy writing we see in many literary journals. It expresses the French idea of le mot juste, the precisely appropriate word. It also fits the organic model of art, in which each element is part of a unified whole. And good writing does have a deft, apt feel to it, though this quality comes mostly after the rigorous trial-and-error of composition. The best antidote to this bromide comes from Susan Sontag’s essay “On Style”: “Usually, critics who want to praise a work of art feel compelled to demonstrate that each part is justified, that it could not be other than it is. And every artist, when it comes to his own work, remembering the role of chance, fatigue, external distractions, knows what the critic says to be a lie, knows that it could well have been otherwise.”

The writing process takes over, so that your characters start creating their own situations and dialogue. This scenario is particularly attractive to neophyte novelists wondering if their writing will ever feel spontaneous again, or will at least take care of itself. Deliberation makes everything such a drag. But really, what the characters’ “taking over” means is that the writer is so immersed in the work that the mind is fully engaged, volunteering material from the unconscious that seems “given.” When an interviewer asked Nabokov whether his characters ever took over one of his novels, he ridiculed “that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand” and added, “My characters are galley slaves.” To another interviewer asking him a similar question, he snapped, “What a preposterous experience.… I am the perfect dictator in that private world insofar as I alone am responsible for its stability and truth.”

Less is more. This precept has so many adherents that it seems a truism rather than a minimalist tenet. Those who embrace the notion remember it as the motto of the Bauhaus School, though in fact it appears earlier, in Robert Browning’s poem “Andrea del Sarto.” But Browning applies it to the painter del Sarto’s late, spare style, not to all artistic creation. What about baroque art, with every bare spot filled in? What about the maximalism of Laurence Sterne or William Gass? To edit down isn’t a bad idea, but more apt editorial advice for a patch that isn’t working is “Cut—or expand.” That is, remove the problem, or else add to and flesh out the passage until it succeeds.

Write about what you know. This dictum has brought us countless student workshop stories about dormitory life and sick relatives. Interpreted literally, it restricts a writer’s scope to base-level particulars. When John Updike wanted his protagonist Rabbit Angstrom to run a car dealership, he sent a researcher to compile notes about the business, then artfully wove the details into his narrative. Maybe the full dictum should be “Write about what you know—or learn.” Of course, some writers point out that this precept has to do with emotional knowledge, not mere facts: what it’s like to kill a deer with a bow and arrow or how the disintegration of a twenty-year marriage resembles a crumbling house. But even here, a good writer can fake it, or project convincingly, just as an actor who’s a bachelor may play a fine King Lear. In Independence Day, Richard Ford convincingly writes of oedipal rage and teenage sullenness in the relationship between his protagonist, Frank Bascombe, and Bascombe’s adolescent son. Ford happens to be childless.

Show; don’t tell. This saying is attributed variously to Hemingway, Henry James, or your run-of-the-mill college writing instructor. As do some of the other directives, it contains a germ of worthwhile advice: Dramatize your points rather than turn your story or poem into an essay. But some of the most memorable lines in novels are essayistic, or are authorial voice-overs commenting on the action or the characters: Charlotte Brontë’s “Reader, I married him”; Rilke’s “You must change your life.” Different writers have different strengths. E.M. Forster’s perceptive commentary, running alongside his narration, is part of why people continue to read him.

“I had to write—I wasn’t fit for anything else.”
I’ve heard this claim from plenty of people who ought to know better. Trying to explain why they ended up in front of a typewriter—or a keyboard, which doesn’t seem as romantic—they claim their art by default, or incompetence in all other fields. It’s a charmingly self-deprecating pose, meant to deflect criticism, but it doesn’t really hold up. Many people who aren’t particularly suited to what they do manage to get along. Others who can’t make a living at writing but need to support a family damn well try their hand at another line of work, and then another. No one’s holding a gun to your head and ordering you to write.

Writing is strenuous work, harder than bricklaying. This response, too, is meant to deflect criticism coming from the popular conception of a writer as someone who doesn’t sweat too much. To support this claim, we may find in the history of literature dozens of accounts of blocked writers who spent all day writing three sentences and then erased them (as Conrad famously complained of doing on a particularly bleak day), or of masters who talk of “the siege in the room” (Beckett’s phrase). When the words don’t come, writing certainly does seem torturous, but think also of Dickens, who wrote portions of Nicholas Nickleby while entertaining guests, or just of yourself on a good day. Over the long run, writing doesn’t steal your mind and body the way working on an assembly line does. I’m reminded of a certain Southern writer who complained a lot about the profession, but when asked if he ever thought of quitting, snorted, “What, and work for a living?” As one wag quipped, “Writing is the worst profession, except for all the others.” Much great art is based on suffering, but no direct correlation exists.

Writing is like Zen or [insert simile here]. Such comparisons are meant to mysticize writing, a practice annoying to those who appreciate the no-nonsense effort of pounding out good sentences. As with other sayings about writing, it has some truth to it: One can enter a zone of tranquility, and it does help to block out external distractions. But I know too many writers whose methods of composition have little to do with tranquility.

Creative writing can’t be taught. This annoying maxim deserves a set of quotation marks, since it’s quoted by so many people. It is a tribute to the romantic notion of genius, and it’s also anti-intellectual. Talent is talent, it claims, innate and inborn, and no amount of time spent in a classroom can create it or improve on it. What will help your writing is a bit unclear: the school of life, perhaps, or picking up tips from strangers on the street. But anyone who’s ever consulted a friend with a critical eye knows how much that can aid a flawed manuscript. A good creative writing workshop brings many sharp eyes to bear upon a piece of work. Writing isn’t just an art; it’s also a craft, with useful guidelines for improving a product. That’s why the apprentice system makes sense, though it may not suit everyone’s temperament. As one poet told me, years after undergoing a rigorous MFA program, “It saved me a lot of time. I was making mistakes that would’ve taken me twenty years to correct on my own.”

Writers should stay away from the academy. Given the number of fine writers who teach in schools, this caveat is a little puzzling, though its biases aren’t hard to identify: partly anti-egghead (the life of the mind can’t compare to real emotions) and partly reverse snobbism (there’s something truer and more vital about blue-collar jobs than, say, accountancy). But real life is wherever you find it, and a writer’s imagination won’t be stunted by proximity to a classroom. In fact, the academy may be one of the last places where fine writing is still respected. As Wallace Stevens wrote impatiently back in 1942, “One of these days I should like to do something for the Ivory Tower. There are a lot of exceedingly stupid people saying things about the Ivory Tower who ought to be made to regret it.” Nabokov praised his school’s libraries and long summer vacations. Maybe what people object to is teaching writing, which can sap the energy you need to write your own work. Gore Vidal once sourly observed that teaching has ruined more writers than drink. But anyone who’s worked “in the real world,” from digging ditches to holding down a nine-to-five office job, knows how draining the real world can be. And teaching writing, as an experienced author told me before my first stint in front of a class, is the final stage in any writer’s education. I didn’t quite know what he meant until I had to start thinking consciously about every part of my writing and justify each step to a crowd of beginners. That’s when I really learned what worked in writing and what didn’t.

Art stems from a generous impulse. I like what I do, and I hope that others appreciate what I give them to read, but am I doing it for them? In Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Sunday in the Park With George, about the nineteenth-century painter Georges Seurat, a German burgher and his wife stroll past Seurat daubing at his masterpiece A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884, and the husband remarks that painters have it easy. When his wife protests that artists work very hard, the husband retorts, “Work is what you do for others, / Liebchen, / Art is what you do for yourself.” In fact, good art seems to require at least two impulses: an anal-expulsive impulse to be disorderly and creative, and an anal-retentive urge to complete the work, to arrange and sort it. To put it another, more pungent, way, using the same metaphor: Artists are in love with their own shit, but their skill is to make others love it too.

Real writers have to be slightly crazy. Is there such a thing as an artistic temperament? No question, some writers are prone to melancholia or alcoholism. Many have a skewed view of reality or an exquisitely tortured sensibility that makes their observations worth reading. “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact,” declares Shakespeare’s Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But what counts is the writing, and many balanced individuals produce rare and elegant work. P. G. Wodehouse, so skilled in turning a phrase and turning the tables in a plot, was apparently a dull man addicted to soap operas. That’s why writers’ biographies often have to be pepped up: Someone who spends long hours pondering word choices may not be either manic or interesting. At the base of this canard is a confusion of writers with the characters and situations they come up with. A common anticlimax comes with meeting a famous author, only to find out that she “doesn’t live up to” her writing. Shakespeare himself seems to have been a materialistic citizen concerned with getting ahead in society.

True genius will eventually be recognized. How’s that? For all the stories about near-death or posthumous fame, we all know people who are never going to get their due: wrong era for epics, or personality not demonstrative enough. The most successful are those who have both artistic ability and marketing savvy. Might talent at least be discovered posthumously, perhaps when the time is right for its recognition? Maybe, but the amount of writing out there these days is so large that a lot of it is going to be passed over even if it’s publishable, and some, even if it’s published.

Where does this leave us? Still tapping away, but with some of the romantic haze gone. That may be a shame, given what little else we have to keep us going. Myths are what we live by, even though some of them are pernicious. A practical knowledge of the writing life may be more useful than dreams of picturesquely starving in a garret. But what are we creating, and why? Though some art is dreamy, Auden once claimed that the purpose of his poetry was to disenchant. I like the way that’s put. You could even make it a credo.

David Galef has published nine books, including the novels Flesh (Permanent Press, 1995) and Turning Japanese (Permanent Press, 1998) and the short story collection Laugh Track (University Press of Mississippi, 2002). He’s a professor of English and the administrator of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi, Oxford.

Poetry Challenge


Need a dose of inspiration for your writing routine this April? Take our Poetry Challenge and try out a new writing prompt or poetry-related assignment every day during National Poetry Month.

April 30
Transcribe a poem—one of your own from this month’s challenge or a poem that’s spoken to you sometime this month—onto a postcard. By the end of the day, slip that card into the mail to be delivered to a friend.

April 29
Pause today and allow yourself at least fifteen uninterrupted minutes to write freely, using the first word or phrase that comes to mind to guide the entire exercise. If you come to a stopping point in the writing before time is up, revisit the initial word or words as you would a refrain.

April 28
Choose a clichéd phrase ("fit as a fiddle," "think out of the box," "running on empty," etc.) and turn it around. Use the new meaning created by this reversal to fuel a poetic meditation.

April 27
Write a poem to or about a person close to you using any of the senses except sight.

April 26
Choose a word or phrase you find yourself saying often (e.g. like, totally, hate, really, kind of) and write a poem using it as much as possible, turning it over and over, repositioning it, extending it, playing with its uses and the parts of speech into which it can be shaped.

April 25
Write a letter to a landscape or scene you pass through today. For example, “Dear Williamsburg Bridge,…”

April 24
Open a book that you're reading to any page. On this page are the materials you have at your disposal to make a poem. Circle words and phrases that strike you, as well as words with which you're not familiar or are overly familiar. Use the words on this page to make a new literary object. Repeat words as you see fit, but do not add any other material.

April 23
Choose a poem that you are in the process of revising. Create a map of that poem, paying attention to the gradation of its landscape, its realities and abstractions, its landmarks, the spacial relationships among its features. Use the map to guide a revision of the initial work.

April 22
Make a list of the names of your family members and friends. Use all of them to create a poem. Try writing a tiny letter to each name, using free association to link each name with another word, or describing each briefly as if it were a character or object.

April 21
Print out a poem—yours or another writer’s—double spaced. Above each word write another word that is similar in spelling or meaning, until you have the makings of new lines above each existing line. Revise these into a finished poem.

April 20
Take a look at the selection of Keith Waldrop’s collages and consider what Robert Seydel, the editor of Several Gravities (Siglio Press, 2009) writes of the work: "In collage, opacity is the norm, defining a solid architecture through a series of abutments. Certainly Waldrop employs this formal structure on occasion, but he more typically enunciates his picture through transparency. Ghostings, hauntings, veilings, falling and ascending figures, drift are central themes for Waldrop, all concerning the in-between, in part the unbeheld." Now write a poem.

April 19
Choose a poem that you’ve written and rewrite it in its reverse, making the last line the first, etc. Revise this version, creating a new poem.

April 18
Write a sonnet. For examples, visit the Poetry Foundation’s Web site.

April 17
Choose an everyday object (e.g. subway car, elevator, paper napkin, coffee, highway, grass) and investigate the anatomy of that object, real or imagined. What are the specific names for its parts, its origins, its functions, who it touches, how it moves or is moved? Use these terms to fuel the writing of a poem.

April 16
Flip through the dictionary randomly and choose ten words. Write a poem with each word in every other line.

April 15
Choose a favorite line from one of your poems and write a new poem using that line as the first one.

April 14
Find a map—of the Earth, the United States, or your home state or city—or visit Google Maps, pick a town at random, and write a poem about daybreak in that specific location, inventing any pertinent details.

April 13
Take any printed page—from your favorite magazine or book, today’s newspaper, an instruction manual, junk mail—and create an erasure poem. For a discussion of erasure poems and plenty of examples, read Small Press Points or visit the Wave Books Web site.

April 12
For one week, collect words and phrases you encounter throughout the day, from signs, advertisements, menus, overheard conversations, radio programs, television, etc. At the end of the week, write a found poem, using these snippets.

April 11
Go to a used clothing store and choose a piece of clothing that you are drawn to or repelled by. Wear the item and a channel a poem from it.

April 10
Write a poem using the N+7 form, conceived of by the French poets of the Oulipo movement. Choose a text, such as Elizabeth Bishop’s "One Art," and replace each noun in that text with the noun occurring seven entries below it in your dictionary. Next, try the exercise with one of your own poems. For more on the poets of the Oulipo, read "Oulipian Feats: Postcard From New York City."

April 9
Snip apart a draft of one of your poems, line by line or in chunks. Rearrange the elements and rerecord the original work.

April 8
“Translate” a poem into English from a language with which you have limited familiarity. Be attentive to the texture of the language and allow your immediate impulses about what the words mean inform your interpretation. Be sure not to look at an English translation until you have finished writing your imagined translation.

April 7
Select five objects from the room around you. Isolate those objects in a landscape and write a poem that investigates, insists upon, dissects, or contextualizes those objects. If the poem takes you away from those initial objects, and you find yourself stuck or lost in the landscape you’re creating, return to one of the objects.

April 6
Collect images from newspapers and magazines either by clipping them or making a list of the colors, things, people, objects, and their qualities that you notice as you look through them. If you’ve clipped images, create a collage with the clippings as an illustration of a poem not yet written, and then write that poem. If you’ve collected images as text, use the snippets to create a poem.

April 5
Transcribe a snippet of dialog overheard today and use that cue as the opening thought of a poem, like an epigraph.

April 4
Choose a line from those collected below, or a line from the book you’re reading, and embed that line in a work of your own, starting with or returning over and over to it.

“Oh, but it’s dirty!”
Elizabeth Bishop, “Filling Station”

“Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,”
John Ashbery, “At North Farm”

“When I die, I want your hands on my eyes,”
Pablo Neruda, “Sonnet 89”

“Green, how I want you green.”
Federico García Lorca, “Romance Sonambulo”

“Such poisonous families / I startle,”
Cathy Park Hong, “Elegy”

“My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent,”
Frank O’Hara, “In Memory of My Feelings”

April 3
Transcribe the text of a sign that you encounter. Write maintaining the tone—imperative, advisory, declarative, etc.—of the sign.

April 2
Write to and through a work of visual art, such as the piece we’ve selected, Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth. (You can view the painting on Wikipedia's Web site.) Visit a museum or gallery to experience works firsthand or check out a Web site such as the Museum of Modern Art’s at moma.org, which allows you to peruse the museum’s collection.

April 1
Listen to an audio version of T. S. Eliot reading one of his poems. (On Salon’s Web site you can hear him read "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.") Internalize the music and rhythm of the poem, and freewrite for a page, interpreting those elements in your own language. Read what you’ve written, circle three to five phrases that you like, and use them to start a poem.

Academy Prepares for National Poetry Month


The Academy of American Poets launches on Wednesday the fourteenth annual National Poetry Month, a thirty-day celebration of poetry in American culture. Throughout April, the organization will sponsor events in New York City and initiate poetry-sharing programs nationwide.

The month kicks off with the Poetry and the Creative Mind gala at Lincoln Center in New York City, featuring readings by writers such as Jorie Graham, Mark Strand, and Zadie Smith, as well as by performing artists such as Joan Baez, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Wynton Marsalis.

Through April 15, the Academy is inviting readers to transcribe a line of poetry in an environment that "invites that line's undoing" and submit photographs of the ephemeral poetry to the organization for possible inclusion on the Academy Web site. Submissions to the Free Verse Project are also entered in a contest to win a copy of Poem in Your Pocket, an anthology published by the Academy, and a piece of jewelry engraved with a selection from a poem.

On April 30, the Academy celebrates Poem in Your Pocket day, when readers are encouraged to carry poems to share with others throughout the day. A selection of print-ready portable poems is available on the Academy Web site. In celebration of the day, a reading from the Poem in Your Pocket anthology featuring Matthea Harvey, Ann Lauterbach, and Meghan O'Rourke, among others, will be held at the Strand Bookstore in New York City.

Readings and programs happening nationwide during April are listed on the Academy Web site, which features a state-by-state map of events. Also available on the Web site are ideas for how to celebrate the month in your community and a list of newly released books of poetry. Visitors to the site can also sign up for the Poem-A-Day service, which will send each day via e-mail a new poem from a collection published this spring.

Academy of American Poets Goes Mobile


The Academy of American Poets on Monday launched a mobile version of its online poetry archive at www.poets.org/mobile. Users can now access the archive, which contains more than twenty-five hundred poems as well as hundreds of biographies and essays, using an iPhone and most other mobile devices. The new service is free.

"I have always believed that poetry has a necessary place in daily life," says Academy executive director Tree Swenson. "As the first arts organization to offer mobile content, the Academy of American Poets affirms its imperative to connect people to poetry by creating free and simple access for everyone." Poems can be browsed by author, title, occasion, and form as well as searched by keyword. Users may preview the mobile archive here.

The new component of the Academy's Web site was unveiled three weeks before the beginning of the organization's signature program, National Poetry Month. On Wednesday, the Academy announced the establishment of a national Poem in Your Pocket Day, April 17, during which Americans are encouraged to carry poems with them and celebrate "the power of the poem to both transport a reader and be transported by one." Also in April, the Academy will hold its sixth annual benefit, Poetry and the Creative Mind, featuring Candace Bushnell, Katie Couric, Jonathan Demme, Dianne Reeves, Meryl Streep, and others. The event will take place on April 1 at Lincoln Center in New York City.


Academy of American Poets Elects Three New Chancellors


The Academy of American Poets recently announced the election of Rita Dove, Gerald Stern, and Kay Ryan to its board of chancellors. They will join current chancellors Frank Bidart, Robert Hass, Susan Howe, Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine, Nathaniel Mackey, Robert Pinsky, Susan Stewart, Gary Snyder, James Tate, Ellen Bryant Voigt, and C.K. Williams.

Dove won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for Thomas and Beulah (W.W. Norton, 1986) and served as the U.S. poet laureate from 1993 to 1995. Her most recent book is American Smooth (W.W. Norton, 2004). Stern won the National Book Award in 1998 for This Time: New and Selected Poems (W.W. Norton, 1998) and is a recipient of the Wallace Stevens Award. His most recent book is Everything Is Burning (W.W. Norton, 2005). Ryan is a recipient of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her most recent book is The Niagra River (Grove Press, 2005).

The Academy’s board of chancellors was established in 1946. Former chancellors have included W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, and James Merrill, among others.

Pause the Podcast and Dial-a-Poem


As poets and publishers have taken advantage of technological advances to present poetry in a variety of new media, from podcasts to video poetry produced for the small screen, one writers organization is looking back to the telephone to spread the word. Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia recently launched 6-POEM, which offers callers a reading of a poem by a celebrated writer from the PennSound archives. The phone number is 215-746-POEM (7636).

Today's callers can hear a recording, from April 10, 2000, of Robert Creeley, once a Kelly Writers House fellow, reading his poem "Thinking." A poem by a student reader affiliated with the Writers House is also featured. The recordings will be updated frequently, according to the organization's Web site.

The dial-a-poem concept dates back to 1969, when poet and performance artist John Giorno and his organization Giorno Poetry Systems set up a call-in recorded poetry project with ten phone lines in New York City. "Using an existing communications system," Giorno wrote in an introduction to a collection of featured dial-a-poem recordings, now available online, "we established a new poet-audience relationship."

According to Al Filreis, one of the Kelly Writers House founders and the director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at Penn, comments on 6-POEM have been positive. "The responses I've received so far typically say, 'Geez, this is so retro it's cool,'" Filreis wrote on his blog, "and 'Everything seems to be converging on the phone,' and 'Telephony rocks.'"

For those looking for a higher-tech poetry experience, the Kelly Writers House also posts podcasts of readings and PennSound houses its extensive archives online. 


The Tale of the 10 Cruelest Months

Daniel Nester

After winning the Tanning Prize—now called the Wallace Stevens Award—from the Academy of American Poets in April 1996, James Tate gave a public reading in New York City. After reading a few poems, Tate stopped abruptly and said, “Well, we’ve survived [National] Poetry Month. It was a very close call for some of us. Thank God.”

Nine years after Tate got belly laughs from his audience, the Academy is preparing to celebrate the 10th annual National Poetry Month in April. NPM is still going strong, and still eliciting strong reactions from the poetry community. It is seen, depending on one’s perspective, as either a marketing bonanza or a wonderful excuse to bring poems into the public sphere.

“It’s done what it set out to do, which is to seriously raise the profile of poetry,” says Tree Swenson, the Academy’s executive director. “National Poetry Month is one of the components that has raised the water level of poetry.”

The Academy is planning its typical water-level-raising events for this year’s celebration. Book designer Chip Kidd designed a promotional poster, 175,000 copies of which will be given to libraries, schools, and bookstores nationwide. Scores of publishers, labeled NPM sponsors, will schedule special events and new poetry titles for April. And a third installment of the celebrity-studded “Poetry and the Creative Mind” fund-raiser, to be held April 5 at Lincoln Center’s 1,100-seat Alice Tully Hall, will feature actress Meryl Streep, architect Maya Lin, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, and network anchorman Dan Rather, all reading their favorite poems.

This year’s celebration will also include two new programs. The first is “Ten Years/Ten Cities,” which will feature well-known poets reading at venues across the country, from Maxine Kumin in Seattle to Jorie Graham in Washington, D.C., all sponsored by the Academy or cosponsored with local poetry organizations. The second is an effort to start poetry reading groups. The Academy will resuscitate its Poetry Book Club—launched in July 1998 but defunct since October 2002—this time with a retail partner. The Academy’s Web site (poets.org) will offer book recommendations for reading groups, as well as free Readers Guides of notable poetry books each month. A guide for Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass will be the first.

Charles Flowers, the associate director of the Academy, says the reading group initiative is part of an effort to uphold the larger principle of the organization’s dedication to poetry book publishing. It’s also in response to the NEA Reading at Risk survey, issued in June 2004, which reports the percentage of adults reading literature has decreased 10 percent in the past 20 years (from 56.9 percent to 46.7 percent). “It’s hard to measure how much is read or written during National Poetry Month,” Flowers says. With the reading groups and the book club, the Academy will “try to quantify who’s reading and buying poetry on a regular basis.”

Paul Yamazaki, a buyer for City Lights Books, says in the first years of NPM, poetry sales at the store increased by nearly 18 percent. “It’s a very strong stimulus for independent booksellers and publishers of poetry,” he says. Independent literary presses—Yamazaki cites Copper Canyon, Coffee House, Graywolf, Kelsey Street, O Books, and Sarabande, among others—“have found many new readers who look for their colophons on the shelves of City Lights Books.”

Laura Moriarty, the deputy director of Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, California, points to the “small bump” in March sales as bookstores plan for April readings. NPM, she says, is a “fine opportunity” to reach outside the admittedly small circles of regular poetry buyers.

NPM, though, has its share of critics. In his keynote address at the 1996 PEN Literary Awards ceremony, past Academy chancellor Richard Howard said that NPM is “the worst thing to have happened to poetry since the advent of the camera and the internal combustion engine.” In his essay “Against National Poetry Month As Such,” which he read on National Public Radio, poet Charles Bernstein complains that NPM “tend[s] to focus on the most conventional of contemporary poetry” and suggests an alternative title of National Mainstream Poetry Month.

“We take it all in stride,” says Flowers of the criticism. “The fact that people are talking about it is a good thing.”

The consensus seems to be that the annual poetry celebrations aren’t hurting anyone and may even turn a reader or two to a book of poems, which is generally regarded as a step in the right direction. “I’m certain that anything that brings poetry to a wider audience is a good thing,” Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Paul Muldoon says. “At the end of the day, poetry needs to be seen as an ordinary part of our lives rather than something extraordinary.”

Paul Yamazaki, a buyer for City Lights Books, says in the first years of NPM, poetry sales at the store increased by nearly 18 percent.

Six Video Poems


The ideal video poem gives the reader, now a viewer, a new experience of poetry through sonic and visual layering. The effect is not unlike that of a music video—and given how the invention of that medium, with its unique point of access and presentation, brought a new audience to music, the video poem may be ushering a whole new demographic to poetry. Here are six video poems that have been made available to a wide audience on YouTube.

"Reticent Sonnet" by Anne Carson

"Sonnet of Addressing Oscar Wilde" by Anne Carson

"Pleasurable Complexity" by Thylias Moss

"Verde: the greening of electrons" by Thylias Moss

"My Entrepreneurial Spirit" by Aaron Fagan

"Naked Leaf Dissolve" by Aaron Fagan