My Way

Charles Bernstein was in Chicago recently for a poetry reading. In between poems he let slip the opinion that National Poetry Month is bad for poetry. Naturally we were intrigued and asked him for a short essay on the idea in celebration of—if not the month of April—then our publication of his new book My Way: Speeches and Poems.

"Bernstein is a poetic gadfly, uncompromising in his questioning of what language is, why we use it as we do, and what values are conveyed with our linguistic choices. Bernstein will make few readers comfortable; there is something here to irritate almost everyone, beginning with Bernstein's radical vision of language and his egocentric voice. . . . American poetry needs Bernstein to keep it radically honest, and he is, playfully and annoyingly, delighted to meet that need."—Booklist

"This book, for all of its centrifugal activity, is a singular yet globally relevant perspective on the literary arts and their institutions, offered in good faith, yet cranky and poignant enough to not be easily ignored."—Publishers Weekly

Read an interview with Charles Bernstein on the Seminary Co-op Bookstore website.

Also see Charles Bernstein's site at the Electronic Poetry Center.

Oh, and if you'd like to read some poetry anyway, check out our poetry catalog, with links to lots of excerpts.


[This essay first appeared on the University of Chicago Press website in April 1999. Charles Bernstein delivered an abridged version of this essay on National Public Radio in April 2001. Listen to the RealPlayer audio.]

Against National
Poetry Month
As Such

by Charles Bernstein
Author of My Way: Speeches and Poems

And they say
If I would just sing lighter songs
Better for me would it be,
But not is this truthful;
For sense remote
Adduces worth and gives it
Even if ignorant reading impairs it;
But it's my creed
That these songs yield
No value at the commencing
Only later, when one earns it.
      —translated from Giraut de Bornelh (12th century)

April is the cruelest month for poetry.

As part of the spring ritual of National Poetry Month, poets are symbolically dragged into the public square in order to be humiliated with the claim that their product has not achieved sufficient market penetration and must be revived by the Artificial Resuscitation Foundation (ARF) lest the art form collapse from its own incompetence, irrelevance, and as a result of the general disinterest among the broad masses of the American People.

The motto of ARF's National Poetry Month is: "Poetry's not so bad, really."

National Poetry Month is sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, an organization that uses its mainstream status to exclude from its promotional activities much of the formally innovative and "otherstream" poetries that form the inchoate heart of the art of poetry. The Academy's activities on behalf of National Poetry Month tend to focus on the most conventional of contemporary poetry; perhaps a more accurate name for the project might be National Mainstream Poetry Month. Then perhaps we could designate August as National Unpopular Poetry Month.

Through its "safe poetry" free verse distribution program, the American Academy of Poetry's major initiative for National Poetry Month is to give away millions of generic "poetry books" to random folks throughout the country. This program is intended to promote safe reading experiences and is based on ARF's founding principle that safe poetry is the best prophylactic against aesthetic experience.

Free poetry is never free, nor is free verse without patterns.

Oscar Wilde once wrote, "Only an auctioneer admires all schools of art." National Poetry month professes to an undifferentiated promotion for "all" poetry, as if supporting all poetry, any more than supporting all politics, you could support any.

National Poetry Month is about making poetry safe for readers by promoting examples of the art form at its most bland and its most morally "positive." The message is: Poetry is good for you. But, unfortunately, promoting poetry as if it were an "easy listening" station just reinforces the idea that poetry is culturally irrelevant and has done a disservice not only to poetry deemed too controversial or difficult to promote but also to the poetry it puts forward in this way. "Accessibility" has become a kind of Moral Imperative based on the condescending notion that readers are intellectually challenged, and mustn't be presented with anything but Safe Poetry. As if poetry will turn people off to poetry.

Poetry: Readers Wanted. The kind of poetry I want is not a happy art with uplifting messages and easy to understand emotions. I want a poetry that's bad for you. Certainly not the kind of poetry that Volkswagen would be comfortable about putting in every new car it sells, which, believe it or not, is a 1999 feature of the Academy's National Poetry Month program.

The most desirable aim of the Academy's National Poetry Month is to increase the sales of poetry books. But when I scan some of the principal corporate sponsors of the program of the past several years, I can't help noting (actually I can but I prefer not to) that some are among the major institutions that work actively against the wider distribution of poetry. The large chain bookstores are no friends to the small presses and independent bookstores that are the principal supporters of all types of American poetry: they have driven many independents out of business and made it more difficult for most small presses (the site of the vast majority of poetry publishing) to get their books into retail outlets, since by and large these presses are excluded from the large chains. I also note this year that The New York Times is a major sponsor of National Poetry Month; but if the Times would take seriously the task of reviewing poetry books and readings, it would be doing a far greater service to poetry than advertising its support for National Poetry Month. The whole thing strikes me as analogous to cigarette makers sponsoring a free emphysema clinic. Indeed, part of the purpose of the Academy's National Poetry Month appears to be to advertise National Poetry Month and its sponsors—thus, the Academy has taken out a series of newspapers ads that mention no poets and no poems but rather announce the existence of National Poetry Month with a prominent listing of its backers, who appear, in the end, to be sponsoring themselves.

The path taken by the Academy's National Poetry Month, and by such foundations as Lannan and the Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Fund, have been misguided because these organizations have decided to promote not poetry but the idea of poetry, and the idea of poetry too often has meant almost no poetry at all. Time and time again we hear the official spokespersons tell us they want to support projects that give speedy and efficient access to poetry and that the biggest obstacle to this access is, indeed, poetry, which may not provide the kind of easy reading required by such mandates.

The solution: find poetry that most closely resembles the fast and easy reading experiences of most Americans under the slogans—Away with Difficulty! Make Poetry Palatable for the People! I think particularly of the five-year plan launched under the waving banners of Disguise the Acid Taste of the Aesthetic with NutriSweet Coating, which emphasized producing poetry in short sound bites, with MTV-type images to accompany them, so the People will not even know they are getting poetry.

This is the genius of the new Literary Access programs: the more you dilute art, the more you appear to increase the access. But access to what? Not to anything that would give a reader or listener any strong sense that poetry matters, but rather access to a watered down version that lacks the cultural edge and the aesthetic sharpness of the best popular and mass culture. The only reason that poetry matters is that is has something different to offer, something slower on the uptake, maybe, but more intense for all that, and also something necessarily smaller in scale in terms of audience. Not better than mass culture but a crucial alternative to it.

The reinvention, the making of a poetry for our time, is the only thing that makes poetry matter. And that means, literally, making poetry matter, that is making poetry that intensifies the matter or materiality of poetry—acoustic, visual, syntactic, semantic. Poetry is very much alive when it finds ways of doing things in a media-saturated environment that only poetry can do, but very much dead when it just retreads the same old same old.

As an alternative to National Poetry Month, I propose that we have an International Anti-Poetry month. As part of the activities, all verse in public places will be covered over—from the Statue of Liberty to the friezes on many of our government buildings. Poetry will be removed from radio and TV (just as it is during the other eleven months of the year). Parents will be asked not to read Mother Goose and other rimes to their children but only ... fiction. Religious institutions will have to forego reading verse passages from the liturgy and only prose translations of the Bible will recited, with hymns strictly banned. Ministers in the Black churches will be kindly requested to stop preaching. Cats will be closed for the month by order of the Anti-Poetry Commission. Poetry readings will be replaced by self-help lectures. Love letters will have to be written only in expository paragraphs. Baseball will have to start its spring training in May. No vocal music will be played on the radio or sung in the concert halls. Children will have to stop playing all slapping and counting and singing games and stick to board games and football.

As part of the campaign, the major daily newspapers will run full page ads with this text:

Go ahead, don't read any poetry.

You won't be able to understand it anyway:
the best stuff is all over your head.

And there aren't even any commercials to liven up the action.

Anyway, you'll end up with a headache trying to figure out
what the poems are saying because they are saying

Who needs that.

Better go to the movies.


Copyright notice: ©1999 by Charles Bernstein. This text appears on the University of Chicago Press website by permission of the author. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. and international copyright law and agreements, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that Charles Bernstein and the University of Chicago Press are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of Charles Bernstein.

Charles Bernstein
My Way: Speeches and Poems
©1999, 334 pages
Cloth $60.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-04409-5 Paper $18.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-04410-1

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for My Way.

See also: