April is Poetry Month
Part 1: Poetry Will Make You Wise
“Beauty is Truth, truth beauty – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
— Ode on a Grecian Urn, John Keats
James Stone Goodman, poet rabbi
I heard that April is poetry month. There is some controversy in circles given over to setting specific time for something fundamental, months for specific histories, Jewish history in May Black history in February and the like. I am poetic in April, come May strictly prosaic. In June, I am grunting.
I am speaking poetry all the time now, trying. Not rhymes, some in silence even. Some singing. In many of our languages the song poem continuum is undistinguished by a boundary at all; all songs poems, all poems songs. This is the way it is in Hebrew: poem and song, same word. We are singers poets stringists and we still don’t distinguish between the word for poem and the word for song – they are same: shir, shirah, shirim.
My teacher taught me the early poetry epics of the Greeks in the same way. We learned the Homeric poems as creations of oral poets, composing with an instrument and a set of forms that they returned to, stringing together words for the telling of the epic poems that were spoken first, written later.
In all language there is music as there is poetry so we are, all of us, singing and poesying and soon we will all recognize that and meet each other in language and that will bring some sort of peace, perhaps the way we least expect. We will listen to each other better when we realize that we are speaking poetry all the time. Every month. Speaking poetry and singing even when ordering breakfast. Eggs over easy, rye toast – dry. Coffee. So beautiful.
Poetry is April month, so we are expecting an outpouring of some sort of soaring integrative healing in April that rises out of beauty (Keats come back — we are paying attention now). Beauty is truth, truth beauty, right now I can’t figure out what that means. Neither could T.S. Eliot, who was not in favor of April or July for that matter as poetry month. He preferred May (May is the kindest month, he said later on). He left us notes to explain why May was so great (school’s out for summer basically).
Written on Keats’s gravestone, in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, is this noble epitaph: Here lies one whose name was writ in water. No name no date, he was twenty-five when he died in 1821. There is something else carved there. Above the inscription is a Greek lyre with four of its eight strings broken.
When the poet died, so did the music, long before bye bye Miss American Pie. I am loving poetry of all kinds now, the poetry I hear and the poetry I do not hear, the poetry I read and the poetry that is spoken, the poetry in quartets and the poetry of broken strings. The black fire and the white fire, it is all over fire when on the page, and when spoken, it is even more combustible. The strings may be broken but the music is working working working.
There was a performer for gangsters in my hometown when I was a kid. He spoke stories in rhyme, he put his audiences into a kind of trance, even the big-mitted tough guys who sat in the speakeasies were enchanted. What was his power?
Language, poetry, music, it tamed the gangsters of Detroit and it has quieted me. I ascend into silence, call upon the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but Halleluyah. I am quoting Leonard Cohen who spoke these words sitting four-sided around a table in Montreal just before Passover one year. Halleluyah means praise, the embrace of the highest, the poetry of ascent, the ascent of poetry. It’s from the Psalms, which according to the Greeks — means songs.
Know poetry and you will come to understand how religion became boring.
I am gobbling language like candy and loving the poetry I hear every day, every month. April is poetry month. Not. Every day is poetry month.
April is Poetry Month
Part 2: Poetry Will Make You Rich
Thank you Ruth Lilly (1915-2009)
It is difficult to get the news from poems
– William Carlos Williams, from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”
James Stone Goodman, poet rabbi
Poetry Foundation has a new building in Chicago, it’s one of only three buildings in the country dedicated to the arcane art of poetry. Still poetry is what we live for; it’s what we need from the news, though it’s difficult to get poetry from the news. One of the local news shows I see is looking for some good news because I am sure they think that will sell cars better. It’s poetry that sells cars, anyone who has read William Carlos Williams knows this. How much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, well, a car can carry so much more.
Still I am suffering every day for lack of what is found there, the news, good news anyway. I am so glad the news is lightening up and I am encouraged by the urban gardens in Detroit and other examples of colloquial goodness. Now we can all be lifted up by the news, but it’s not poetry.
Ruth Lilly, great grandchild of Colonel Eli Lilly who made his fortune in pharmaceuticals, gave poetry the biggest boost in years with a gift to the Poetry Foundation (publisher of Poetry magazine) of 100 million dollars (this to a publication that wouldn’t publish her own poetry). From that gift was built the 21.5 million dollar headquarters that opened last summer on Dearborn and Superior streets in Chicago.
Poetry magazine used to pay two dollars a line for poems, but none to Ruth Lilly who submitted poem after poem under a name no one would recognize, posted from Indianapolis. That’s what I call healthy detachment. It’s all about the work, Ms. Lilly said.
Her work wasn’t up to Poetry magazine’s standard, it might have been if they knew she had her pen poised on that 100 million dollar Eli Lilly pharmaceutically pure check.
The great way is not difficult to one with no expectations, not since the 7th century third Zen Patriarch of China Sengstan has anyone demonstrated so little expectation as the philanthropic Ruth Lilly posting anonymously from Indiana. I think about her whenever my poems are rejected, the rejection part not the 100 million dollars part.
Harriet Monroe, poet (she rhymed most of the time) and onetime critic for the Chicago Tribune, founded Poetry: A Magazine of Verse in 1912, not long after returning from a trip to China. The motto of the magazine was Whitman’s line “To have great poets there must be great audiences too.”
In its early days, Poetry promoted the Imagists, poets such as Ezra Pound, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, Ezra Pound gave her the initials for purposes of poetry), T.S. Eliot, and scores of other initialists. “These poets have bowed to winds from the East,” she wrote. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by the then unknown T.S. Eliot was published in Poetry in 1915.
Poetry magazine received a face-lift with a hundred million bucks and it looks a heck of a lot better than it used to. It is a lean and dignified publication. Probably nothing published in it will bring down the Empire, it’s thirty five dollars a year which takes a chunk out of a good poet’s budget since hardly anyone can make a living as a poet these days (unless you win the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize which is $100,000, big bucks in the poetry world but still not enough to buy a decent house in San Francisco where poets once lived before Citibank).
That’s what I long for, not just a poetry month, a poetry decade, and a city of poets, and the ascendance of the poet as a guy or gal who can make an honest living taking down the priests, kings, corporations, and even the prophets with heuristic revolutionary verse.
Here I go with a lunch pail a pocket full of pencils and a coffee house to hang out in, I’m going to work — to parse the world, praise the word, squeeze it for what it means, make it mean when it doesn’t.
Ruth Lilly, you’re my hero, because you had a 100 million dollars to give away and you gave it to a magazine that hardly anyone reads featuring a form few practice, to some snobs in Chicago that wouldn’t even take your own product (poetry that is, not drugs).