National Poetry Month is Like Those Little Oyster Crackers in Chowder


Image: West Chester Public Library

“Hey, Jim. You’re a poet. It’s National Poetry Month. What do we need to know?” — Literary Louie

This is the grand total of my poetic output this month so far:


Feelings are capitalist bullshit

It’s not the worst poem I’ve ever written. Not by a long shot. That would probably be the poem about how God was the person inside the Coke machine that wouldn’t accept my wrinkled dollar. I kind of like that poem. I don’t know if “We’re Out of Lemon Pledge” is totally done. But I’m not the best judge of my own poems. I just kind of write them. I don’t make them win Bollingen Prizes.

Chances are your typical run-of-the-mill novel can be optioned into an HBO series. Remember Swamplandia? Or The Corrections? Clearly the novel they ought to be making into a TV show with nudity and swearing is that Watership Down. Swearing, screwing British bunnies? I smell Emmys. Poetry has no chance to break into the mainstream this way. There isn’t going to be an HBO movie based on The Collected Poems of Sparrow. I’m not sure that there even is a Collected Poems of Sparrow. But there should be. And you ought to watch it.

National Poetry Month is kind of a fundraising scheme that Poetic Not-For-Profits came up with to meme-ify our genre. So like every book of poetry has to come out in April. Because that’s the only time people will review poetry books. Because we’ve taken our cloistered art form and fenced it in to 30 days. Have you written a book of Irish History? It’s going to come out right before St. Patrick’s Day. With a green cover. And a lot of shamrocks. No matter what the damn thing is about. Irish We’ve made the most ignored, least profitable way to write more easily ignored. It’s like putting mimes in a submarine and sending them to the bottom of the ocean. Bye bye, mimes. Good luck getting The Bends.

American poetry is humming along. This Trump thing is kind of taking up a lot of the air. Which doesn’t make for great poetry. But does make poets feel useful and slightly empowered in a world that has given them the one-fingered salute. I’ve been reading Flarf: An Anthology of Flarf, which has just come out from Edge Books. Although they are mostly poems collected from The Aughts, they fit neatly into the Trump Age. Maybe a little too neatly. It’s a little scary. It is nice to once again encounter old friends like “Pizza Kitty” by Rodney Koeneke, “I Love Men” by Nada Gordon or “Chicks Dig War” by Drew Gardner. Their effect seems amplified under the current clouds of selfie culture and our swirling layers of fake news. But Gary Sullivan’s “That a Hamster Could Be President“ ”stands as maybe the starkest, creepiest connection to the Tale of the Comrade Orange.

The best thing you could do for poetry in April is buy a bunch of poetry books and then put them aside for a while. Poets do all kinds of readings and tours and dancing monkey routines in April and then are left with just their tap shoes in the corner the rest of the year, contemplating the great belly button in our pants. Pick up one of our books in the summer, say for example Elaine Kahn’s Women in Public. Don’t box those poems in to April. It’s too crowded in that zoo, the monkeys are throwing poo at each other just to keep from going completely crazy.

We might just be the most delicate of all the snowflakes, we poets. We are earnestly writing in ways that aren’t earnest about the things we’re earnestly concerned about. Humor us, it’s a wild pretzel we live on. And I’m not speaking ill of those little oyster crackers. They can be a bit chalky. Manufacturers go for oyster shape over tasty cracker flavor. But whatever gets you through the night. Some people enjoy Manhattan Clam Chowder. This world is a bananas place to have to operate.

In April they make celebrities read our poems and collect money that ends up going into more fundraising until we’re fundraising to keep up with the fundraising. But, on behalf of all poets in America and abroad, we just want you to read poems occasionally outside of a wedding or a funeral or a National Poetry Month. Don’t make poetry something you’d just never approach. Like those LaCroix waters. I’ve heard they’re tasty. Give one a whirl once in a while. If you’re a radio producer, do a story about a poet in September. If you review poetry books, write about them in December, when people are buying presents for each other. And none of those Best Books Lists, those are crap. I don’t want my poems to be on some list. I want my poems to be your list. Tourists are fine for poetry. But we need townies, too.

Jim Behrle lives in Jersey City, NJ and works at a bookstore.