April is Poetry Month, a sure indication that poetry is in serious need of life support. Whenever an entire month is devoted to something, one can safely assume it is not a mainstream idea, subject, issue, or movement.
For example, poetry shares April with Irritable Bowel Syndrome Month and National Oral Health Month.
Aficionados of poetry are desperate to create a love of poetry in the multitudes.
Unfortunately, the poetry that they love does not appeal to the vast majority of North Americans. It doesn’t rhyme and has no regular rhythm.
North Americans like a beat and at least an occasional rhyme, a tendency perhaps inherited from the Anglo-Saxons 1,000 or more years ago, who wrote their epics with a heavy beat and lots of alliteration.
For the last 100 years, poets in North America have drifted away from rhyme and a regular rhythm, relying for impact on other, less discernible, poetic devices, the ones that your English teachers in high school tried to get you to memorize (simile, caesura, onomatopoeia, etc.), all of which you quickly forgot.
The last great poet who used regular rhythm (metre) and rhyme was Robert Frost. He was also the last great poet who was admired by the average North American. Frost famously said that writing free verse (poetry without rhyme or metre) was like playing tennis without a net.
The irony is that the poetry that today’s poets have derided, or at best acknowledged without enthusiasm, have prospered – rap and cowboy poetry.
While most contemporary poets struggle to find an audience, rap and hip hop artists fill stadiums and cowboy poets perform before enthusiastic audiences at events throughout the west.
The two genres could hardly be farther apart in most ways: rap, along with its variants, is urban, raw, profane and often violent or sexual in content; cowboy poetry is rural, bucolic, nostalgic and a celebration of human virtues.
What they have in common is that both have a very regular beat and rely on rhyme for emphasis, cowboy poetry in particular usually rhymes at the end of each or every second line. This is a notable feat since it is difficult to find words that rhyme with horse.
No matter what your taste in poetry however, and no matter whether you prefer, Keats, Frost, Buckshot Dot or LL Cool J, find a little time to dig out a book or CD and read or sing along in celebration of Poetry Month. Better yet, write your own. Your old English teachers would be proud.
– Jim Holtz is WEEKENDER columnist and former reporter for the Grand Forks Gazette.