Some Lines on National Poetry Day

To be honest – and I feel that all poetry, if nothing else, should be honest – my feelings about National Poetry Day are complicated. I balk, instantly, at the idea that poetry needs a “day”.

I am tempted to wonder what kind of musicians and composers would respond to National Music Day, what kind of molecular biologists or theoretical physicists to National Science Day. Not the good ones, is my mean-spirited conclusion. Every day is National Politics Day.

But I wonder – and I should admit that I have gratefully participated in National Poetry Day’s festivities at the South Bank on numerous occasions – if my attitude is borne more out of fear than anything else. The fear, in a way, of putting yourself forward for something which turns out to be bogus or embarrassing, a transparent marketing device or a simulation of enthusiasm which lacks any semblance of critical faculties; loud enthusiasm for something which, after all, is quiet, and strange, and resistant to reduction, even to celebration. It’s hard to think of a starker contrast between the language required by marketing and the language required by poetry. It’s the reason – after a little soul-searching and a lot of bank-account searching – I recently decided that I couldn’t write anything worthwhile for an advertising campaign for a high street building society.

The poet I most often re-read is the great American writer John Ashbery, who died earlier this month. My favourite Ashbery collection is Three Poems (1973), a book of three long prose pieces which only occasionally fragment into verse. This is from the first:

For we judge not, lest we be judged, yet we are judged all the same, without noticing, until one day we wake up a different colour, the colour of the filter of the opinions and ideas everyone has ever entertained about us. And in this form we must prepare, now, to try to live.

For me these are lines which speak of our inevitable obsession with how we come across to other people: unknowable and perhaps even unhealthy, but nonetheless universal. There is a fear attached to even calling yourself a poet, and that fear is that people will find you ridiculous.

In Thomas Pynchon’s 2006 novel Against The Day the narrator diagnoses a terrible malaise, a people “…labouring through a world every day more stultified, which expected salvation in codes and governments, ever more willing to settle for suburban narratives and diminished payoffs – what were the chances of finding anyone else seeking to transcend that, and not even particularly aware of it?” We may read this – what we settle for – as the absence of poetry. That it is only in poetry that we might find a kindred spirit.

Going over old notes I find that I was asked to write something eleven years ago for National Poetry Day 2006. I was 25 and wrote a list poem called ‘NATIONAL [BLANK] DAY’. I’ll only quote a little as it’s awful. “It’s National Tokenism Day / It’s National Give Up on Your Childish Dreams Day / It’s National Platitude Day / It’s National You Could Get Hit by a Bus Tomorrow Day / It’s National Easy Dissonance Between Form and Content Day / It’s National This Isn’t What I Had in Mind Day.” (L. Kennard, age 25½, 2006).

There are many articles each year written rather quickly by journalists who struggle to feign an interest in National Poetry day, and they usually follow this formula:

Perhaps when you think of poetry you think of [sub-editor, please research and insert some names of old, canonical poets] doing [and the sorts of things they did] on a [and where]. But nothing could be further removed from the experience of watching [a crocodile] performing his [functions of a crocodile] onstage. He [scuttles balefully around in search of water]. Truly poetry is the new [sub-editor, please check].

Writing this it strikes me that the same tired formulas and assertions about poetry (which is by turns proclaimed to be “dead” and “the next big thing” often within the same article) resists this kind of writing because it is the living opposite of such writing. Poetry is neither written to order nor to sell, but to transcend (to return to Pynchon), the diminished payoff, to attempt to live every day less stultified.

Dr. Luke Kennard
Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, Department of Film and Creative Writing