“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
Article art graphic featuring black & white images of musician Nina Simone, Sonny Rollins, author Pat Conroy, author & editor Susan L. Taylor, King of Pop Michael, poet & educator Ja A. Jahannes, Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, actor Danny Glover, artist Luther E. Vann, and more. (Bright Skylark Literary Productions)
If you’re a regular reader of my national African-American cultural arts column, you may have noticed that I have not been posting articles as frequently as I once did. The reason is simple enough. Having reached a certain point in the research for my current book-in-progress (at least one of them anyway) I had to reduce as many additional writing obligations as possible to fully concentrate on completion of the work.
For me, this is the part of authorship when the lyrical muse sings and the creative pen dances. The greater bulk of the more rigid tasks of verification and documentation have been satisfied, and imagination may be allowed to take over the processes of narrative construction. The resulting musical flow of image and language stamp the work with its own unique identity. And its own self-defined meanings destined to merge with different readers’ interpretations of the same.
The Writer and the Times
I started the national African-American cultural arts column on July 13, 2009, with a story about the debut of Johnny and Me, Savannah author Miriam K. Center’s play based on her friendship with the late 4-time Academy Award-winning composer Johnny Mercer. That was followed by a profile of acclaimed artist Jerome Meadows. The next month, August, saw the launch of the controversial series on the trial (and eventual execution) of Troy Anthony Davis, convicted for the murder of Savannah policeman Mark Allen MacPhail. Not writing about Davis’s trial, to my mind, would have been a case of gross negligence. Doing so was one early indication of what readers would discover over the next few years: basically, I found it impossible to restrict myself (as asked to do) to the subject of “the arts” as pertaining to African Americans.
How could that have been likely for someone who had already chronicled the global multicultural impact of the Harlem Renaissance in the pages of an encyclopedia, and whose first novel featured a cast of post-Millennials on a parallel Earth? I could no more refrain from engaging political discourse within a column bearing my name than Zora Neale Hurston could have resisted writing black dialect or Franz Kafka could have ignored the absurdities of his existential dilemmas.
Collage of images from the National African-American Art Examiner pages. See here are: King of Pop Michael Jackson, the African-American Family Monument in Savannah, Georgia, author Octavia Butler, slain officer Mark Allen MacPhail, artist Jerome Meadow, author John Lennon, executed Savannahian Troy Anthony Davis, and others.
Moreover, how could it even have been possible in the era that saw such titanic events as these: the two-term presidency of Barack H. Obama, America’s first African-American commander-in-chief, the domino effect of the Arab Spring in 2011, the death of a global pop icon like Michael Joseph Jackson in 2009, the advent of civil war in Syria with its subsequent refugee and migrant crisis, the heart-rending terror of Boko Haram and the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the astonishing triumphs of the Marriage Equality Movement, massive shifts in population demographics, and the end of diplomatic estrangement between Cuba and the United States. Just to name a few.
This is not, of course, to say that during the same period I considered the cultural arts any less important than national or international politics. It has been more than thrilling to share with readers through this specific platform essays on such topics as: the poetry of Elizabeth Alexander, the life and legacy of Maya Angelou, the novels and ever-increasing relevance of Toni Morrison, reports on winners of the Nobel Prize, the enduring literary vision of James Baldwin, the annual global triumph of International Jazz Day, profiles of Kennedy Center honorees, and reviews of some of the most important films of our modern times.
Framing the 21st Century with Interpretive Journalism
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.