Tomorrow is my least favorite minor holiday, April Fools' Day.
The Internet tells me that the origin of April 1 being a day for this sort of so-called merriment may be Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales," a book-length collection of stories written in Middle English during the 14th century. These are the first four lines:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
To our contemporary, American English ear, Middle English looks like something made up as a joke, but I promise this is no April Fools'. It goes on like this for a long, long time. Believe me, though, when I say, it's much more fun than it appears at first glance.
It's appropriate that the origin of April Fools' Day is perhaps found in a book-length work of verse, because April is also National Poetry Month, a minor celebration of which I am heartily in favor.
I wrote about poetry in this space last year, lamenting its lack of popularity and offering my tips for its proper enjoyment.
Sadly, this did not give rise to a poetry boom. I may have overestimated the power of my pulpit. It's possible that the only exposure to poetry most Americans have had in the past year is listening to Richard Blanco read his poem "One Today," at President Obama's inauguration, or the dirty limerick on the bathroom stall at their favorite bar.
We've long lost our relationship with poetry. This was true for me, too, until a professor in graduate school reminded me about its pleasures.
There's a lot of blame to go around for this. Poets are almost exclusively housed in academia now and primarily write for other poets because they (justifiably) think that this is the only audience for poetry.
This is a bit of a chicken-egg problem. Because books of poetry are not commercially profitable, publishers who may distribute their works to a general readership publish very little poetry. Because very little poetry is published in a way that makes itself known to a general readership, very little poetry becomes profitable. Rinse and repeat for 50 years and we have our results.
The publication of the vast majority of poetry books is subsidized by contests or universities, and because of this, the perception is that these are books for other people — you know, poets.
Poets inside the academy need to keep writing for each other for the purposes of professional advancement and security. Journals run by universities or prizes funded by foundations are the only definite audience for their work. I'd like to see poets taking their work to the streets, but under these circumstances, maybe it's wrong of me to ask them to unilaterally disarm.
I think high school is also to blame. Every child grows up loving Dr. Seuss, and my second-grade class could recite every word of Shel Silverstein's "Where the Sidewalk Ends," but by the time we're in 10th grade, when we're told that poems need to be "figured out," what was once joyful is now treated like broccoli: good for you, but not actually good.
But I'm telling you, poetry is elemental. Poetry is vital.
And deep down, every one of us knows poetry. The very first human sounds you ever heard, the rhythm of your mother's heartbeat, were poetry.