life, poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Poetry Reading is On the Rise! Now What?

closeup photo of assorted title books
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Recently, the literary world became aglow with news confirmed by The Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts: Poetry reading has increased over the past several years, giving hopes to aspiring poets everywhere. The questions arising from this news are: 1.) Why are people reading more poetry? and 2.) How do we keep them reading it?

The politically motivated individual will point to the barbarities of our modern age to explain why people are seeking more poetry. Everything is so coarse, so divisive, so insensitive that people are looking into poetry with hopes of solace. They seek some escape from the hard cruelties of our culture’s climate, and think that by slipping into volumes by Mary Oliver or Billy Collins, they will rediscover Keatsian truth-beauty. Maybe they’re right.

But another political explanation goes something like this: People are seeking answers from thinkers, and poets are perceived as philosophers (which we are). Maybe poetry has a secret map laden with metaphors and imagery that can lead us out of whatever misery we may be facing. Historically, poets have been the voices that landmark history. And certainly, our current station in history is one that requires guideposts. Hostilities seep between the teeth of those doing the loudest talking, and some poems provide a quietly artful voice of reason. Other verses scream back irrationally at the megaphone-wielders. Whatever poetry’s response, people are seeking it, and that’s a good thing.

Are we compelled by this encouraging news to produce poems that are merely society-driven? I hope not. For as much value as the adamant political poem has, it often fails to observe the pastoral. Furthermore, the didactic diatribe concerns itself with messaging more than meaning. Clapping back is a limited response, and people will only stick around so long for a sign-waving rally, even if the signs are colorful and easily memorable. Once the adrenaline of activism wanes, everyday life must resume. And it is in the everyday that poetry must make itself seen as vital.

We (poets) must concern ourselves with what endures. Beyond the shouting, beyond the headlines, beyond the temporary controversies, we must strive for the persistent universals that have allowed writers to transcend their respective eras. We still read Shakespeare because we still love, still hate, still aspire, still ponder. We go back to Dickinson because we continue to wrestle with mortality. We return to poetry because we are still human beings, and our lives require assurance, pause, and depth.

I also suspect that people have wearied of hectic, frenetic instantaneity. Text messages, status updates, tweets, and likes are superficial, fleeting things, and even though they produce little bursts of dopamine, we can only tolerate that pleasure-cycle so long. We want something more than emojis and temporary images. It has taken a while, but people’s brains want to do some heavier lifting.

Are you ready to satisfy that craving, poet? Are you prepared to offer language that contributes in a permanent way — not just for the moment, but for eternity? It’s a tall order. With consideration, wonder, and vision, though, we can do it. We can cause people to regularly remember their humanity and continue celebrating it with the greatest of all literature — poems.

poetry, Uncategorized

The Belligerent Merry Christmas

Ho-ho-hold your horses there, buster. 

 

Allow me to begin this semi-controversial post with two disclaimers, or what my logic and rhetoric professors would have called “assumptions:” For the remainder of this reading, please assume that I am a Christian (as I am), and that I am both a poet and language arts educator (which I also am). This means two things — 1. I have no problem saying Merry Christmas to anyone, and often do so both publicly and privately, and 2. I spend a lot of time thinking about the way words are constructed, their connotations, and their overall impression upon audience.

All these assumptions lead us to the real meat of this post: People who angrily insist upon “Merry Christmas” when shopping, on the phone, or in the public forum at large. Yes, I’d like to see everyone wishing everyone else a Merry Christmas, but here’s the thing — God-fearing Christian folks, when you’re in line at the grocery store/Wal-Mart/Target, and the already overburdened clerk says “Happy Holidays,” then and there is not the time to launch into a political and dogmatic soapbox about the use of Merry Christmas. People have families to get home to, dinners to prepare, cards or invitations to send out, and frankly, your high-minded and heavy-handed semantics are only making the season slower and worse for everyone in line behind you.

If you’re that concerned about conveying Jesus to the world, perhaps a better tactic would be to show grace, love, and a touch of holiday empathy to that already overworked person in the store uniform who’s helping you. Look around — everyone knows it’s not just “the holidays” — manger scenes, stars of Bethlehem, advent calendars, and a whole host of heavenly hosts can be found all around you. Yes, there are also snowmen and Santas and all the gaudy lights that Charlie Brown abhorred, but there, in the midst of all that commercialism, is Luke Two, also.

From a strictly academic standpoint, the phrase “Happy Holidays” is more vague and, although alliterative, bland to the point of being trite. Maybe it is this linguistic homogeneity that is the source of conflict — it’s not the lack of Merry Christmas, it’s that the alternative sounds so generic and impersonal. We like people that are regularly in contact with us to know our names, and a little of our likes and dislikes. When we’re confronted with the ho-hum Happy Holidays, we feel like we’ve been shortchanged in some way. That much is understandable.

But to turn a well-wish into an open wound of ill-perceived malice and religious persecution is to defeat the spirit of the season entirely. What makes you so special that you MUST receive a Merry Christmas over any other type of parting exchange? Would you be so offended by the nonseasonal “Have a Nice Day?” How about “Take care now?”

Listen: I make my living from words and their direct and indirect meanings. If anyone should have a beef about what language is used when and how, it should be me. But I’m not going to lambaste the poor soul who wishes me a happy holiday, a good evening, or even a (gasp) Happy Hanukkah. I may return their good tidings with a Merry Christmas of my own, or I might simply say thank you. But to use my faith as a weapon of ridicule? No thanks.

Lighten up, ye merry gentlemen. Let nothing you dismay, including what the tattooed kid at the cash register says. May your days be merry and bright. Enjoy this Christmas season and all its glorious traditions with family, friends, and others. Let us keep the good cheer through civility, respectful discourse, and that most universal of all greetings: an honest smile. Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

Politics and Poetry

 Today is Election Day. In a vast departure from my usual blog fare, I am writing today about my political leanings. Prepare to be offended. You may stop reading here if you believe this post will make you angry.

As a group, poets have always been pretty politically active. Usually, that activism has been of the Berkeley-inspired sort, with Allen Ginsberg appearing naked or George Saunders writing tongue-in-cheek about being Ayn Rand’s lover (see the latest New Yorker).

Artists and poets have historically professed to being open-minded and accepting of all. And yet, watch what happens in writing groups or seminars when a conservative voice enters the picture. Suddenly that open-mindedness is nowhere to be found, and ugliness quickly enters the scene. All the anti-bullying rhetoric that these same “compassionate” people spout daily somehow gets forgotten in the barrage of name-calling and slur-shouting. Hypocrisy at its finest. It’s as though people who vote Republican or even conservatively Independent aren’t welcome in the “literary clubhouse.” The children already inside have posted a poorly lettered sign that reads, “No Patriots Allowed.” After all, patriotism is a notion that shows some kind of loyalty or devotion; strictly verboten ideas to the hedonists, nihilists, atheists, and radicals who nailed together the clubhouse in the first place.

This statement takes me back to a few years ago when a friend of mine was banned from a coffeehouse for reading a poem that the business owner considered “too right-wing.” What happened to freedom of speech there? Does it only apply to my liberal friends? Why is burning a flag okay, but expressing legitimate concern over our national debt suddenly taboo? The questions could go on and on.

Certainly conservatives are not exempt from the hand of this accusation, either. “The Ol’ Boy Club” has been around for generations, and there is good reason why the artists and creatives of our society felt the need to become a clique of outsiders in the first place. Now the outsiders, however, are those within the arts who cherish ideas like religious liberty, traditional family values, a strong military, the right to life, the freedom to defend one’s home and family, or giving just and swift punishment to those who commit heinous acts against innocent others. These are the very tenets that our ancestors fought and died for, writer and reader friends.

For a moment, however, let’s leave behind any issue that is not directly related to writing and the arts. Let’s assume that today when you go to the polls, you want to vote for the candidate who has done the most to support these two ideas. One candidate leveraged the arts into prominence, supporting music and creativity-based programs in schools while supporting business and individual liberties. The other candidate slashed 13 percent of funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities AND from the National Endowment for the Arts. You do the math.

The polls will open in about half an hour here. I plan to make my vote count. I hope that you plan to do the same, friend. And I hope that my assertive utilization of the First Amendment has not in any way negatively impacted your view of me as a writer. At the end of the day, what really counts is my performance, not my politics.