Pandering for Poetry

YEAH, YEAH, APRIL is the cruelest month, and now it's also official poetry month in the republic. This fact is supposed to prepare us for all manner of bizarre events--such as the poetry bonanza that hit the stage last Friday at the Mall of America. The concept itself was simple enough: Every poet, from the well-established senior to the angst- ridden teen (all of whom were duly represented at the event), believes that he or she can "reach" someone, anyone, if the poet can just grab their attention for a moment. It's worked on street corners. Why not try it in a shopping mall?

But even Malcolm McLaren couldn't have crafted this dada-ist mixture of the muse and merchandise any better. Handy samples of "Poême," a perfume concocted in the vats of Lancôme and worn on the body of actress Juliette Binoche, were gladhanded to curious shoppers cum poetry buffs. I'm happy to report that it smells lovely, nothing like a poem.
Can you imagine the aroma of T.S. Eliot's
"The Wasteland"?

But this "interactive poetry fest" was more than just an excuse for a product tie-in. Poems were indeed read and friends and family listened as shoppers chanced by. Some were distracted enough to stop and watch and be regaled; for my part, I found my thoughts distracted from the poetry at hand by a snorkeling mask in the window of The Dollar Store. The highlight of the afternoon was a performance by ARTS-US, a group of much-touted "young story tellers" that included a girl who recited, extemporaneously, a brilliant poem she wrote about Harriet Tubman. It made me think about how, even as the notion of a poem was here just another product at the mall, the actual spirit of creativity will never be stamped out in mass production. The world needs more divine and inspired ideas, and more often than not those ideas must spring from unreliable, even potentially insane mortals

Poetry readings have exploded across the U.S. in the last five years, cropping up everywhere from biker bars to public television broadcasts. So the Megamall is merely getting with the program. Perhaps it can do even more by hiring poets to enlighten shoppers 24-7. But not everything can be so easily crammed into a convenient context for the grinding wheels of late capitalism. In fact, it is the unpredictability and wild, unmarketable quality of poetry that makes it a unique kind of expression--and a wonderfully strange thing to witness at a temple of commerce. But don't think that commerce didn't have its way: The raffle held at the end of the reading had, as its grand prize, $200 gift baskets from Bloomingdales.

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