by Ashley Gerling
April 2014 marks the 16th National Poetry Month in Canada, and this year’s theme is Poetry City. What began in 1998 as a means of celebrating poetry and its place in Canada’s vibrant literary culture has now become a national event which celebrates not just poetry but also the small presses, poets, and writers who contribute to the cultural life of Canadian communities and champion an art form that has received far too little attention in the past century.
While Canada is doing well for itself with over a dozen poetry awards distributed annually, in comparison to honours given for literature and non-fiction in both Canada and worldwide, recognition for our thriving poetry community is severely lacking. One of Canada’s most well-known and highly decorated poets Margaret Atwood has commented on the conditions under which poets work: “giving all, receiving little in return from an age that largely ignores them.” Though UNESCO maintains poetry’s global status with World Poetry Day (March 21), poetry continues to be viewed as elusive to the greater public.
American actor/director/poet James Franco chatted about poetry with Jimmy Fallon last week, saying “I know how an actor writing poetry sounds,” reinforcing the notion that poetry and popular culture cannot go hand in hand. The world of poetry has become divided in a way similar to the high/low dichotomy well-known in the arts, with “serious” poetry published in collections by literary publishers floating on its pedestal high above poetry slams and amateur blogs which are often scoffed at by both literati and the general public.
But poetry, which was once the most popular art form during the days of the Romantics, was never meant to be inaccessible and indecipherable. Canada’s current Parliamentary Poet Laureate Michel Pleau recently said, “Poetry has existed since the beginning of humanity. Our ancestors gathered around the fire and tried to communicate with mysteries bigger than themselves.” The message that needs to be rediscovered then is that poetry is about uniting people through universal truths communicated in beautiful language, not about dividing them.
Natasha Trethewey, former U.S. poet laureate has said, “Dismissals of poetry are nothing new…. It’s easy to dismiss poetry if one has not read much of it.” So this National Poetry Month, I encourage you to pick up a collection of poetry, attend an event or reading, and discover the “subterranean Wonderland of Canadian writing” (as Margaret Atwood so eloquently described it). The League of Canadian Poets as well as small presses like Quattro are doing what we can to ensure poetry will always have a place in Canadian culture, and there is no better time to get involved than during National Poetry Month.
National Poetry Month launches in Toronto on Tuesday April 1, 2014 at Ben McNally Books on Bay St.