The major mid-20th-century American poet Wallace Stevens called poetry “the supreme fiction.” Nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson once confessed, “if I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera (who visited Santa Fe in 2015 to present a benefit reading for Somos Un Pueblo Unido) wrote, “Poetry is a call to action. And it also is action.”
The history of poetry has been filled with attempts to characterize and define poetry, probably because poetry asserts a kind of magic over the reader or the listener that is too elusive to fully define — and yet, to only say that poetry at its finest seems “magical” is insufficient. Poetry is an interplay of words, rhythm, music and imagery that charms the reader at various moments by pleasing the mind, the ear, the body and the heart. It’s a cerebral and a sensory experience all at once.
April is National Poetry Month. Across the country, the poetic art will be celebrated in readings, forums, workshops and talks by leading American poets. It may be that in Santa Fe, National Poetry Month will stand out a bit less than in other American cities. That’s for a happy reason. Poetry is commonplace for Santa Feans. It is celebrated all year long by writing groups and at numerous local venues, including a regular reading series at Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeehouse.
This year’s National Poetry Month, however, also marks a time of concern over public funding for the arts and humanities, including threats to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. Poetry, despite being a form of magic, still depends on small presses to publish poetry, and those presses often depend on partial support from federal funding.
Dismantling the NEA and NEH would not only cripple poetry publishing, it also could stymie poetry education programs for youth. Beyond that, the catastrophe would cripple theater groups, dance performances and art exhibitions nationally. It’s not statesmanship to propose a federal budget that promises to dumb down America. It’s boorishness.
Still, we celebrate. St. John’s College is sponsoring a series of readings and workshops for National Poetry Month. They will include “Poetry as Embodiment,” conducted by instructor Lisa Bertsch Moore at 7 p.m. April 19. Moore is a yoga practitioner who has worked across the country with trauma survivors and people with disabilities. She began combining poetry and yoga after she sustained a spinal cord injury 14 years ago: “I discovered that it’s easier to express complex feelings in poetry,” she said.
Then, at 2 p.m. April 22 at St. John’s College, international trainer Ann Betz will lecture about the science of poetry and language, discussing how poetry works by exciting the brain. To her, “the people who want to get rid of arts funding don’t understand how important nonlinear thinking is. When we eliminate the arts, we’re damaging the human brain.”
Curtailing young people’s access to the arts will hinder their capacity to understand higher mathematics and the sciences. More broadly, losing arts funding would hurt New Mexico. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened yet. But the looming threat makes 2017 the year to celebrate poetry — and all the arts — with more dedication than ever.