Somewhere in April I know, and maybe more than once, the question of what makes something poetry, came up. Or maybe it was what makes a poem a good poem. In any case I had vowed to come back to this topic, as it is an important one for me. But before we delve into definitions and such, it might help to first ask a few questions, like, Why does it seem that poetry hasn’t been a very popular art for some time now? For a while I feared that it was a dying art form, but there is a great deal of evidence, noticeable to those of us who have been performing CPR on the old beast, that it is gaining new and younger followers again.
So why do some people “hate poetry?” Why do I sometimes hate it? Jlynn Sheridan was talking about this on her blog recently as regards to her husband’s feelings on the topic. In her follow up she was kind enough to quote me in the discussion. It’s worth a read. I think the main thing is that poetry shouldn’t be torture, and it certainly shouldn’t be some trick played on us by someone who thinks they are oh-so clever.
So I guess that part of where I am going with this is to explore what poetry is not, and how it has become regarded in recent history. I want to spend some more time discussing what poetry really is, or what I think it should be, and how a growing group of folks seem to be making progress at bringing the enjoyment of poetry back to the masses, and back to people’s every day lives.
For now, here’s a bit of Jlynn’s blog for context, but be sure to click over there to read her secret confessions.
Last week my husband revealed to me why he doesn’t read or like poetry.
1. He doesn’t understand it.
2. It doesn’t make sense.
3. He’s too stupid to understand it. (he said it, not me.)
A few commenters added their own thoughts:
1. Poetry takes time—they’re short, but require contemplation—and nobody has time. (thanks to emrw)
2. Their 10th grade English teacher destroyed all possibility of enjoying poetry.
3. Lots of poetry seems like “nose-in-the-air-difficult-philosophical-clap-trap.”
4. Nobody likes to be looked down on.
(Thank you sonofwalt for these final three.
By the way, sonofwalt says of number six, “This is one of my reasons for attempting to bring people back to it (poetry) afresh, when they can be encouraged to find something pleasurable about the whole experience. I cannot recall who said this, but I like the idea, ‘A poet’s purpose is to help people enjoy their everyday lives.’”
I agree. If poetry does not help people, what good is it?
Featured image from www.savagechickens.com.
45 Comments Add yours
Your Alexander Blok photo got my attention. I’m an American who studied Russian in Russia in high school and college. We spent A LOT of time memorizing poems, especially Blok’s poems. Fortunately, I enjoyed poetry, and worked on h.s. and college poetry mags. I like that it is an important subject even today in Russia. I enjoy symbolism and finding ways to express things that don’t necessarily have simple words to explain them. And I like to do the same thing on a canvas!
Wonderful. How did your teachers teach it? Sounds like they did a fine job. Ours it seems don’t teach memorization so much, though that would probably help, especially with musical (metered) poetry.
I included the Blok poem because putting poems on the sides of buildings would be a great way to bring poetry to people in the U.S.
Sorry, I meant to respond to this sooner! I think poems on buildings here would be awesome.
In Russia, they used fear and intimidation to teach us poetry. It was quite effective! Only kidding, well, sort of. We were always a small group, sitting in a very warm, small room (like 8′ x10′) for hours on end, on rickety chairs with a teacher sitting an arm’s length away at most. The teacher would passionately dissect every word for its deeper meaning, give us the history of the poet, and explain why this poem in particular was crucial to memorize – especially if we wanted a passing grade… Luckily, I enjoyed poetry even before my trips to Russia, and much of it was beautiful to listen too, even if I couldn’t translate it easily on my own.
That’s why I include a section in my blog called “My Favorite Poetry”. I understand them. They say something to me. They make me think and consider. (And that’s not a bad thing). Some make me laugh and make a bright spot in my day. But I also enjoy being surprised by learning, through someone else’s insight, what I missed on my first read through.But then, poetry is a plunge into someone else’s psyche, and that can be a real maze. I agree totally with the person who said no one likes being looked down on. That’s why I’ve gone into poetry sessions with fear and trepidation, but hoped to come away with a little more than I knew before I went in. That’s because I like poetry, not only for its special lens onto the world and people, but for its lyrical music that caresses the ear and the mind. Do I like all poetry? Not hardly. But I do love it for what it is, and was part of my “escape” into other worlds as a child. And, in the vernacular of “my day”, poetry just might not be “your thing.” Some people see poetry in vintage cars and can “wax poetic” over them. I like looking at them. But my views on cars are purely “pedestrian”. They are just not “my thing”.
Agreed. Poetry certainly is my thing, but I don’t just mean that. I don’t expect or ever dream that everyone will be as enthusiastic about poems as I am. But what concerns me is that while not everyone likes country or rap, pretty much everyone enjoys some sort of music. And while most people don’t care deeply for art, or photography, pretty much everyone can appreciate and enjoy a particular painting or photo at one time or another.
There are lots of activities, as Billy Collins has said, that have a very limited audience. I find golf boring as heck, and know that some of my friends love it. But even being generally bored by it, I can still whistle through my teeth in appreciation when someone makes a hole in one.
But poetry it seems is one that very few people, by comparison, enjoy, unless they also write it. At least that’s how it’s been these last few decades it seems to me. So what has happened? More than tenth grade English teachers, I blame poets. But that’s another blog entry. 😉
You make a very good point.
It’s just that in the past, it seems that even people who hated poetry, or “didn’t get it” probably knew of one poem that made them smile, or maybe they had memorized a short Robert Frost piece, and found it meaningful.
I cannot provide graphs and charts, but I think it’s we poets who screwed this up. I am not saying that abandoning traditional meter is the problem, though that and rhyme did bring a certain pleasure to the reader and make it easier to memorize. It may well be that to most people writing of that sort sounds archaic.
What might be a big part of the problem is that for years we sat around in little furnished rooms with our hazelnut coffee and cookies and read each other’s poems and complimented each other for being so deep… I think we lost our audience, and started talking to ourselves. That happened with the protestant church in America too, but again, that’s another story, and not one for this blog. lol 🙂
And I should add that I do think there is evidence recently of our getting some of that audience back. 🙂 I hope that’s true, because that’s part of my dream. 🙂
This is an excellent observation: “What might be a big part of the problem is that for years we sat around in little furnished rooms with our hazelnut coffee and cookies and read each other’s poems and complimented each other for being so deep… I think we lost our audience, and started talking to ourselves.”
Did poetry just get too hoity toity? I love this conversation and while there might not be one single answer, it’s important. Art is important. I think our culture is diminished when we secret our gifts away.
Poetry is for the masses, not just the few who sip coffee in smoky bars or between stacks in coffee houses.
Thanks for keeping this conversation going and linking back to me. I want to keep bringing this up from time to time.
Now, I’m off to verbally poll my friends.
Thank you, Lynn, for letting me in on the conversation. This topic has been one on my mind for some time, and one I’ve been wanting to get writing about.
you are welcome!
I agree with the help part I don’t write for money, I try to write well but if I can get a smile in the morning and a chuckle in the evening, then my job is done
There you go. 🙂
The last one is a very valid point ‘4. Nobody likes to be looked down on.’ I guess we’re saying poetry isn’t accessible to most? I read verse as a child, I remember my dad reading poems to us and limerics which made us giggle, so how come as adults we lose touch with the playfulness of poetry?
Great question! Williams blamed Elliot. I’m not going to go quite that far, but the man had a damned good point. 🙂
After reading this wonderfully incisive discussion I can’t help but think about what someone like Foucault has to say about the fragmentation of the author. This may clarify people’s misapprehensive outlook towards poetry. I believe it was in his essay, “What is an Author?”, where he said that what we traditionally thought of as an “author” has now become a misplaced identifier/ed. Basically, a person’s as much of an author as the next; a company is as much of an author as the government. This means that, taken further, a comment someone posted on Facebook, although questionably not on the same level as Shakespeare’s work, still serves to label someone as an author. Just this month I found out a friend is starting a novel online where everyone participates and votes on how it will conclude.
This means that because ANYONE can be an author, people confuse that with ANYTHING being literature, or music, or poetry. Although I haven’t spent too much time blogging, these variations in quality are too apparent to me. We’ve got the writer who publishes something that sends jolts down my spine just as easily as someone who woke up one day, wrote a “poem,” and barely missed gouging out my eyes.
The world has become too fragmented, and poetry shows that fragmentation too well. And maybe that’s why people don’t read it: because just as much as “nobody likes to be looked down on,” not everybody likes to be confronted with their own best qualities or their own worst demons. Otherwise we’d all feel like we’re part of a sitcom or like someone, hiding in the most perfect spot, is monitoring our every movement–which goes back to Foucault’s ideas of society.
Thank you for discussing these pressing issues and let poetry thrive! 🙂
Excellent observations, sir! Thank you!
I’ve thought about this a lot as well, as I learned to love poetry only a few years ago and many friends tell me that they don’t like poetry at all. It always seems to boil down to two things:
1) They simply aren’t familiar with more accessible poets. In school they studied older poetry, some of which was moving but much of which never stopped feeling foreign. The poetry published in The Atlantic and The New Yorker, two of the only mainstream publications that still seem to care about the art form at all, is often pretty darn high-brow. There are whole worlds of poets who speak easily and clearly about the human experience. Jane Kenyon, Billy Collins, Richard Jones… No one who isn’t “into” poetry ever seems to know about them.
2) Their high school English teachers forced them to write poetry. In my opinion, poetry cannot be forced. I remember my English teacher always wanting us to bare our souls – forbidding rhyme because it was trite, insisting we find something deep and raw to share. At 16, my response was NO THANK YOU. People need to come to it in their own time, in their own way, and often privately.
I really like your thoughts on this, Sarah, M. Thank you for responding.
I don’t agree that poetry’s popularity has been on the decline. There is a proliferation of poetry blogs, competitions, workshops, courses and so on. What I would say is that it’s not popular amongst young people, partly because of teaching 🙂
You and I are almost saying the same thing. If I may quote myself, rather than repeat myself, which I am unfortunately apt to do: “For a while I feared that it was a dying art form, but there is a great deal of evidence, noticeable to those of us who have been performing CPR on the old beast, that it is gaining new and younger followers again.”
And also this: “how a growing group of folks seem to be making progress at bringing the enjoyment of poetry back to the masses, and back to people’s every day lives.”
Now having re-said that, let me clarify. I think the decline thing is more or less coming to an end, and the pendulum seems to be swinging in a positive direction. Though this poetry renascence could come to a halt again, who knows? But also that I see this much more in North America than I do in the UK. Maybe there is a difference between UK and US young people too, because I was astonished recently to see how many young people have been become involved, not just in writing but in reciting and memorizing poetry through programs like “Poetry Out Loud.”
One final note: The renascence could be a bit of a fake too. How many of these blogs are by people who already write poetry? Notice how many of us who appreciate poetry also write it. Now, there are tons of football and baseball fans who don’t actually play the sport, or maybe they had for a while in school, though m any not well… But what about us? Do we have an audience other than our fellow poets? Or are we still just talking to ourselves? I think the question is worth asking, even while I think that the answer is that, yes, we are gaining an audience again.
Again, all of this seems to be a bit different in the UK. My UK audience seems way higher proportionally than the US one, but maybe that is because you all have a better history of honoring the art form?
Thank you, Tilly!
WONDERFUL post and helpful guidelines for everyone ~thanks dear~your sister Deb
Thank you, luv!
I think that maybe one of the biggest drawbacks the average person finds with poetry is that it requires greater and deeper thought than they are used to having to invest in anything. Sadly too, I find that there are people who simply aren’t able to understand that poetry is compressed meaning, a form of lying in order to arrive at some basic truths about humanity. Poetry requires a few brain cells. Which is probably where that elitist connotation comes in with the ‘I don’t like being looked down on’.
Put bluntly, not everyone is going to be able to get it. But there are huge numbers too, of people, especially young people, who if given the skills to be able to understand what poetry says and does and means and how it achieves all that with so few words and yet still manages to make beautiful even the most terrifying images, will embrace the form wholeheartedly. What intelligent teenager hasn’t at some stage, tried to express the complexity of their feelings in a few lines of poetry? We need good teachers – teachers with both skills and passion for the subject (and not only teachers in schools). We need parents who bring their children up, not glued to the television, but soaked in words, poems, stories.
If only our society placed as much value on art and literature as it does sport.
What I love about poetry is that it inspires both awe and understanding and sheer gratefulness that someone has managed not only to see a little of what it means to be human, but has found the words to express it. I love the depth and complexity, the layers of meaning, the connotations, denotations, every single word that someone somehow managed to put all in the right order.
Thanks for letting me borrow the soapbox!
How in the world I missed this comment two years ago is beyond me, but thank you! You made some excellent points here, and I agree. I don’t want poetry that is dumbed down, but at the same time, I’m no dummy, and when I read something that seems to be written (as some modern poems do) specifically to lock me out of it, and show how clever the poet is, well, I’d rather do something more productive than boost that poet’s ego.
Of course, most of the people who make that “looking down on me” complaint are folks who have, as you implied, had an unskilled or dispassionate teacher way back when, or who stumbled upon something obscure in the New Yorker and couldn’t relate. It may be the difference between appreciating Van Gogh and being stymied at the Museum of Modern Art while looking on a canvas that appears to be nothing but one insistent shade of blue.
I do agree that it takes some learning of the conventions of poetry, just like it does of music or painting, to really have it open up to you. But even with this renaissance of poetry that seems to be occurring, I still cannot help but wonder why music, even good music, seems too have a higher proportion of non-musician fans than poetry has non-poet fans.
And I love a difficult poem, but I want to be teased into it, not taunted (and this is me saying this, not just someone with little love for or experience with poetry). A maze can be fun, but there used to be something about how a great sonnet would draw you in before locking you out. Sure, a little work is rewarding, and a lot of work can be a joy if the reward is there, and something more than just an ego boost to the “difficult poet.” I just don’t see the point of why some (a shrinking group now I hope) still like the idea of putting up electric fences and high stone walls around the fortress.
SOW, You make an excllent argument, to which I have no reply 🙂
I found this interesting: Again, all of this seems to be a bit different in the UK. My UK audience seems way higher proportionally than the US one, but maybe that is because you all have a better history of honoring the art form?
The majority of my audience is from the States; if I use your theory, does that mean Americans have a better history of laughter than we do?
Haha, no probably not. Though it is hip these days to be into British/Irish/UK humor. That sort of, I’m hip because I’m off the beaten path kinda thing. I can’t point fingers, as I am like that too. But you guys do have a reputation for seriousness there, so who knows? 😉
As for the proliferation of poetry blogs, and poetry publishing, and poetry websites, and readings up through at least the mid 2000’s, it seems to have been all written and read by poets. I cannot quote any stats or research, but it just troubled me. From non poets I was still hearing people say “I don’t like it. I don’t get it. I can’t remember the last book I read.” I won’t be so negative as Bukowski was about it, because I still think it was a good thing. But I think it took us a while to start getting an audience beyond our own fold.
I don’t think it’s on the decline any more. I think it’s on the upswing, but I want to recognize where we have been so that we don’t slide back.
And this is why Marc Smith created the Slam poetry scene. He took it to the bars, and the places where everyday folk like the student or the bar bouncer or office worker (I know of all three I just mentioned among MANY others) can express themselves. Slam/performance poetry has been an interesting beast for me to grasp, but I do know it has a place… and some of the most eloquent poems I have ever come in contact with have been through Slam.
Agreed. I participated in some slam events back in the late nineties in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Fun stuff, although we were much more sedate than a lot of the stuff that goes on.
My blog doesn’t have a lot of traffic, so I’m working from a very small sample. However, my experience, so far, is that nearly everyone that clicks “like” on one of my poems also has a blog and writes poetry. I suppose that is natural. I find poems that I like in blogs because I browse from the Explore Topics page on the tags Poetry or Poems. I do that, obviously, because I like poetry. Or, I find something by clicking and reading the fellow blog of someone that liked something I wrote. So, they already like poetry, too. Luckily for me, I’m a computer scientist, not a poet, so I don’t have to worry about how to attract others to read the poems that I write. If I did, obviously I would be a dismal failure at marketing.
I think reading a poem does require an investment. It is an active process that brings together something from both the reader and the writer. The longer the poem or the more complex or obtuse, the more investment is required by the reader in order to get enjoyment or satisfaction out of the poem. I tend to prefer shorter and simpler poems currently, but in my youth I remember that I liked reading longer and more complex stuff. So, I would imagine there is a “market” for poetry of all kinds.
Can the “love” of poetry be taught? I would say in my personal experience it is possible. I went into High School hating English and came out writing poetry. Three years of good teachers turned me around. The start for me was reading Beowulf and Anglo Saxon poetry in 9th grade, especially the alliteration. The almost musical and rhythmic repetition of the sounds of the words really caught my ears. Still does.
I like the Epic poetry too. What teachers out there make their students read “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” anymore? It used to be both required reading, And required Memorization. There was an actual moral point to it as well.
Reading Wordsworth and Longfellow might seem out of touch, but those poems are Beautiful.
Why shouldn’t we challenge our youth to do some of that? Do we really think that none of them are up to it? Or is that our language has become so dumbed down that it isn’t possible anymore?
I loved Beowulf also, and yes, it’s in part not just because of the epic story, but because of the sound of it, all that alliteration and repetition. It seems there are ways to get the magic and fire of that into new generations despite our laziness in wanting to be entertained without the extra effort. I’m not sure why that gets squelched in high school, but often it does.
I hope I am not misunderstood. I am not against difficulty or challenge. But the challenge and difficulty like all aspects of art should be appropriate to the art at hand, and not be difficult just for the sake of difficulty itself. It’s that arrogance that I read in some of these modern philospohical pieces that pisses me off. You can almost hear the poet saying, “Hah! I bet that you won’t get that, and anyway you’ll need a dictionary to read my writing, because I just proved I’m smarter than you.”
It’s that kind of difficulty that I hate, that and the laziness of not even bothering, or just throwing up emotions onto a page, or bleeding ink and expecting me to care, when the poet didn’t even care to engage me. I suppose this is an important aspect that I should get into talking about soon, the tension between those too extremes in modern poetry.
Epic poetry is … epic. Although just large size doesn’t impress me, I suppose. I like that I can be both amazed at the beauty of the totality and of the fine construction, like looking at an amazing piece of architecture and admiring both the overall shape and the fine lines and details of how all the small pieces fit together and form the whole. You can enjoy everything from the elegant design to the fine construction. I don’t look for a poet to impress me that he is smarter than me. There are a lot of people that are smarter than me that can say things that are difficult for me to understand. I look for a poet to impress me that he has more artistic imagination and vision and has the power to make me wonder how long it took to work with all those words in order to tell that story and at the same time make it rhyme or have rhythm or alliteration. Impress me by being able to work at multiple levels and bring it all together in ways that leave me standing bowed over in humbled wonder at the beautiful artistry of the act of creation.
I like this post and love this sentence: “A poet’s purpose is to help people enjoy their everyday lives.’”
One reason I write poetry is to help people feel a greater connection to the greatness and goodness within themselves and others, and with nature.
Which is just one more reason why I adore you. 🙂 Thanks!
Good article. I absolutely appreciate this site.
Stick with it!