The First National Poetry Month
Modeling the success of Black History Month (February) and Women’s History Month (March), the Academy of American Poets initiated the first National Poetry Month in April 1996, enlisting the Poet Laureate and the Library of Congress, as well as poetry reading hosts, teachers, librarians, booksellers, publishers and other literary groups across the country to organize events celebrating poetry in American life throughout the month.
Poetry’s place at the center of American history and culture was most eloquently celebrated in the letter President Bill Clinton sent from the White House to mark the beginning of that first National Poetry Month:
“Throughout our history, America has been blessed by the powerful voices of our poets. Dedicated artists, innovators, and stewards of our language, they tell us not only who we are, but also who we can become. They distill our emotions, clarify our thoughts, and renew our spirits with the vigor of their words and the freshness of their perspective.... In this age of profound change and exciting possibility, we need our artists more than ever to imagine the best future for us and remind us of what is good and constant in our past.”(You can see a facsimile of the original letter at the Academy of American Poets Web site, at the bottom of their page of city proclamations supporting National Poetry Month.)
National Poetry Month Activities
The marquee event of National Poetry Month is a high-profile reading series, which began with the April 1996 reading at the Library of Congress hosted by then-Poet Laureate Robert Hass and including Rita Dove, Anthony Hecht, Mark Strand, Carolyn Forché, Linda Pastan and Charles Wright. This has evolved into an annual benefit gala called Poetry & the Creative Mind, which gathers movie stars, writers and public figures to read poems, celebrate contemporary poetry and raise money for AAP and its National Poetry Month events.
Each National Poetry Month since 1996 has also seen an ever-growing upsurge of performance poetry events in towns all around the U.S., poetry teaching projects in schools, library book circles turning to poems for the month of April, newspaper articles about “the current poetry renaissance,” poetry publishers’ schedules rearranged to focus on April publication dates, poem-a-day emailings, and writing group challenges to write a poem every day during the month. AAP publishes an online calendar listing poetry events around the country, and invites poetry organizers to participate in the National Poetry Month festivities by adding their April events to the calendar. Each year, AAP also makes a National Poetry Month poster for distribution to schools, libraries and bookstores to promote “poetry awareness.”