“Individuals often turn to poetry, not only to glean strength and perspective from the words of others, but to give birth to their own poetic voices and to hold history accountable for the catastrophes rearranging their lives.” --Aberjhani from Splendid Literarium: A Treasury of Stories, Aphorisms, Poems, and Essays. ©Postered Poetics based on original poetry Spencerian calligraphy art by G.A. Gaskell. #NPM16 #PocketPoem
The launch of National Poetry Month, sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, in April 1996, came just three years after the debut issue of the Savannah Literary Journal in 1993. In addition to 49 poems by 35 brilliant writers with regional and national reputations, the 1996 edition of the journal featured six works of fiction and three pieces of creative nonfiction.
My contribution to the journal that year was a personal essay but the title of it, Angels and Shakespeare (later published in I Made My Boy Out of Poetry), revealed the central place verse has always held in my life. So did this epigraph borrowed from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda:
“For this reason Monday burns like
Both National Poetry Month and the publication of the journal (up until 2001) could be considered as invitations to readers, writers, and publishers to explore a more deeply intimate relationship with language. These invitations coaxed them as well to experience the different levels of power words can wield when endowing our lives with either newly-claimed or wholly-unexpected meaning.
The responses, now 20 years down the timeline, have mushroomed into a worldwide cultural mainstay where National Poetry Month (NPM) is concerned. In regard to the Savannah Literary Journal, published by the former Savannah Writers Workshop, it has confirmed the value of one of the city’s most prized artistic legacies.
Of Bloggers and Nobel Laureates
But what should we say of poetry as a whole during the last two decades when life as so many once knew it shape-shifted into a spinning mass of digital signals, globalized communities unbounded by geographic borders, and astounding varieties of terror clashing head-on with determined demands for liberty?
That now populous demographic of humanity known as bloggers did not exist in 1996 and programmer Peter Merholz would not condense the term “weblog” to invent the word “blog” until 1999. Nevertheless, poetically-inclined bloggers during the first and second decades of this 21st century have done a great deal to ensure poetry occupies a prominent position within the global imagination and humanity’s collective ethical consciousness.
Moreover, the ever-mindful Nobel Prize Committee actually saw fit in 1996 to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012) "for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality." And in 2011 it bestowed that same honor upon Sweden’s Tomas Tranströmer , "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality."
A Movement Designed to Inspire
Obviously the Academy of American Poets’ commitment to recognizing, honoring, and documenting literary excellence within the work of American Poets did not begin with the establishment of NPM. That happened back in 1934 when founder Marie Bullock surveyed America’s literary landscape and came to a certain conclusion.
Despite the quietly-evolving cultural canonization at the time of such poets as Langston Hughes (1902-1967), Jean Toomer (1894-1967), Carl Sandburg (1878–1967), William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), E.E. Cummings (1894-1962), T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), and other American quill-masters of the period, it became apparent that more needed to be done to place poetry on some level of esteem comparable to what it stirred in the literary capitals—such as Paris, London, and Dublin––of Europe.
National Poetry Month more than half a century later represented a game-changing upgrade from previous efforts. Since its start, affiliated programs each successive year have helped observations to grow in scope and influence. Initiatives such as Poem in Your Pocket Day (observed this year on April 21), the Dear Poet Project, and Poem-A-Day (via email) contribute immensely to sustaining the sweet joyful howl of poetry in these new millennial times. The key words and hashtags that dominate social media every April––like #npm16, #pocketpoem, #jazzpoetry, #celebratingpoetry, and the tagged names of favorite poets––denote only one small measure of how successful the campaign has become.
It also did not hurt when citizens of the United States elected a lover and writer of poetry, Barack H. Obama, as their first African-American president in 2008. The following is from a 2009 essay written to commemorate both NPM and Jazz Appreciation Month:
…The birth of the Academy meant the birth of a movement designed to inspire, cultivate, and preserve the voice of American poets. And although it likely was not his intention to do so, President Barack Obama extended that movement not only by bearing the “stigma” of being an accomplished wordsmith but by inviting Elizabeth Alexander––an author of several books but of whom many had never heard until Obama spoke her name––to serve as his Inauguration Day poet.
If there is one thing populations of the world have needed, and received, from poetry for the past two decades, it has been inspiration. But not only inspiration in that classic form which reaffirms the value of faith.
Poetry in our post 9/11 era provides the kind of inspiration that defiantly raises poets’ voices against the brutalities of war, the insanities of terrorism, and the indignities of oppression in all its toxic forms. It empowers the simplest of lives to confront the most extreme sorrows with courage, and motivates the mightiest of offices to humbly heed lessons in compassion.
Although the last edition (to date) of the Savannah Literary Journal was published in 2001, its legacy continues to stand as a richly inspiring one. Many of the poets, essayists, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers featured in its pages have since gone on to win national and international acclaim in various fields. These are but a few listed in no particular order: Janice Daugharty, Linda Rocheleau, Darryl Lorenzo Wellington, David C. Hightower, Susan Johnson, Lily Keber, Ja A. Jahannes (1942 -2015), Errol Miller, Kathleen Thompson, Toussaint St. Negritude, Dufflyn Lammers, Anis Mojgani, and Vaughnette Goode-Walker. Again, these represent only a few.
Most would probably tell you their greatest contributions to the literary arts thus far have not been particular poems or stories or books. They have instead been the relationships cultivated with the hearts and souls who heard what they had to say and then drew from that hearing enough motivation to speak their own truths to power and pain and joy.
Despite the Cacophony
Whether through contributors to literary journals, the sustained dedicated efforts of members of the Academy of American Poets, or bloggers content just to have a platform where they could post lines at will, poetry has maintained a dynamic living breathing presence in the world.
Despite the cacophony of bombs and bullets which so often drown out the music of laughter (or possibly because of them) poetry at this point in history may very well be more commanding than any other previous time. There are many reasons to believe its potency, and its beauty, shall grow even stronger in the future.
© National Poetry Month 2016
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
While considering which quote to share for my #MarvelousMonday Twitter tweet this past week, I felt instinctively that it should come from I Made My Boy Out of Poetry. What wasn’t so clear was whether it should be taken from a specific story or poem. That this particular #MarvelousMonday also happened to be my birthday seemed inconsequential so far as the quote was concerned.
Flipping through pages and skimming through lines, the final stanza of “Crossing the Bridge of Bones” volunteered itself with a subtle flash:
Just above our terror, the stars painted this story
It spoke well, I thought, to both the cataclysmic nature of our era and the enduring persistence of the human spirit to survive the roaring sound and fury of these very same times. The odd thing was that I paid almost no attention to the poem from which it was taken until after the quote had been posted.
Poems are sometimes born of a perspective, or a singular blast of sudden heated awareness, indigenous to a specific moment. To a degree, “Crossing the Bridge of Bones” is such a poem. At the same time, however, it transcends that description in that it stands as a parable gleaned from memoir. But the surrealistic imagery, bordering on the phantasmagoric, evokes a kind of nightmare experience with which many might identify and then happily abandon at the poem’s more luminous conclusion. What moved me the most upon revisiting it was seeing how the central image of the poem and the presence of the angel prefigured the images, themes, and characters that would give form to The Bridge of Silver Wings, which later would evolve into The River of Winged Dreams.
Crossing The Bridge of Bones
One of the greater joys of my endeavors as an author and poet has been an occasional opportunity to compose poems, essays, and articles to supplement the vibrant works of visual artists with my own literary constructions.
That was the case in 2011 when providing panel text for paintings featured in the extremely gifted artist Michele Wood’s I See the Rhythm of Gospel exhibition. Previously, I had been blessed with a similar honor when composing ekphrastic poems for the art of Luther E. Vann in ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love. And I’ve written any number of essays reviewing the works or chronicling the lives of other contemporary artists such as Allen Fireall (who currently, heartbreakingly, is challenged by the need for a heart transplant), Jerome Meadows, Phil Starks, and Amiri Geuka Farris.
The year 2012 saw this scenario change in some unexpected ways. In recent months, various readers and inspired techno angels have shared with me a variation on the creative process of me producing words to complement the visual brilliance of fellow creators. Demonstrating Zinta Aistar’s observation (in her review of ELEMENTAL) that “art begets art,” they have employed quotations from my works to lend verbal articulation to specific images–– and vice versa. Their application of these quotes seemed a natural development following the increased popularity of social media sites like Pinterest, Twitter, and Tumblr.
It was an astonishing thing––at first––to experience. The reason was not because I had been unaware these inventive mergers were in progress (although in fact I did not know at the time). It was because the end results so often successfully expanded the original conceptions without excluding the original intent. Others provided fresh interpretations that generated new insights into my own work. How often does that happen for a dedicated pen-pusher who refuses to give up his inkwell and yellow legal pads no matter how awesome the latest generation of notebook tablets may be?
I have often stated that my own involvement in contemporary literature is my way of contributing to the luminous conversation sustained by readers and writers as we journey from one century to another. This new way of art begetting art (new for me at least) is both an expansion of and commentary on that conversation. One of its greatest gifts has been to inspire works like the illuminated phrase posted with this article, and taken from the poem “Holiday Letter for a Poet Gone to War,” published in Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black:
“You were born a child of light’s wonderful secret--
you return to the beauty you have always been.”
As it happens, the image used with this quote represents yet one more way that art has given birth to art because it is my understanding that it is taken from a forthcoming video.
So long as quotations or excerpts are not used for commercial purposes without authorization, I am more than happy to share them and actually feel they help me fulfill my work as an author. For that I am very grateful. After all, if one of the creative artist’s most important jobs is to address––through his or her specific medium–– the more pressing issues of the times, then surely a major part of any serious author’s role is to help compose a suitable vocabulary that accomplishes exactly that. Moreover, it should probably be one that further empowers fellow citizens of the Global Village to achieve such a goal in a way that proposes to heal lives instead of proposing to destroy them. That, more than anything else, may very well provide the greatest affirmation of art’s ever-commanding timeless value.
author of The River of Winged Dreams
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
Novelist Philip Roth in New York City. (Reuters file photograph)
In his September 7, 2012, “Open Letter to Wikipedia,” acclaimed author Philip Roth made an appeal to the editors of Wikipedia. Posted in his blog for The New Yorker, he asked them to correct a statement he identified as misleading in the site’s article on his novel, The Human Stain. Roth––whose literary honors include a Pulitzer Prize, American Book Award, and Man Booker International Prize––stated the following:
“The entry contains a serious misstatement that I would like to ask to have removed. This item entered Wikipedia not from the world of truthfulness but from the babble of literary gossip—there is no truth in it at all.”
He noted further that he had attempted through an official interlocutor to address the issue but was informed that site administrators required “secondary sources” to verify the proposed corrections. “Thus was created the occasion for this open letter.” Roth’s predicament created a pain-inducing illustration of a very modern techno-ethical issue: who should exercise the greater authority over individual public profiles on sites frequently referenced for factual information regarding an established literary figure?
Roth’s primary concern was accuracy in regard to a novel he had written. The editors at Wikipedia seemed mostly concerned with objectivity and authenticity in regard to the same. This is likely NOT a case of guerrilla decontextualization as some might surmise but more a matter of one website’s policy in conflict with one celebrated author’s informed preference.
The Challenge and a Possible Solution
Authors have long had to contend with the challenge of laboring first to create literary products and then promote them via public appearances and the maintenance of an accessible public biography. Others in different branches of the creative arts––actors, singers, painters––have had to do the same. That challenge has been magnified in this age of digital media culture because so many are now equipped and licensed to represent or misrepresent an individual at will. Consequently, something which should be an all-around win-win situation can and clearly sometimes does degenerate instead into a tug of war between individual creative artists and administrators of various digital platforms.
If there is a single most important solution to the issue, it may be for authors to make available on legitimate sites––such as your individual author website or other literary profile pages–– as many factually accurate document sources as possible. After all, how accurate can you really expect a reference article to remain if anyone at all is allowed to change it at will?
The apparent alternative is to spend time as Roth did composing a 2,600-word letter spelling out the inaccuracies in question and flexing one’s impressive literary muscles in the process. But how many of us would be able to get such a letter published in The New Yorker?
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.