I’ve been wondering exactly how to proceed here, because I know what I have to say will piss some people off. Ah well. The recent discussion on the blog is one I have wanted to have for some time and since I just happened to stumble upon Jlynn Sheridan‘s post about why her husband didn’t like, or didn’t get poetry, and her own secret confessions, it seemed like the right time to just launch right in. Obviously these concerns about the plight of poetry are on other people’s minds too. So the time seems ripe to talk about it.
Before I say more, I should preface this post by assuring you that I truly do believe a poetry renascence is going on in the United States. Maybe it’s already been happening in Ireland and the UK for some time. I don’t know, and maybe we are still only an early stage for this poetic revival, and that the resurgence of poetry blogs, contests and little e-zines in the past decade or so really don’t tell us much, because most of this is being not only written by, but read by poets. Face it, most poetry lovers in my country’s recent history have also been poets! As Billy Collins said in his book Poetry 180, “much of [this] energy has been expended tracing the same circle it has always moved in, appealing to the same insider audience.”
Tim Green of Rattle Magazine has said, in an article or blog post somewhere that I cannot find a link to, that he felt the reason for this, in essence, was that poetry was such a potent art, that those who read it want to write it. Fair enough, and I appreciate the way he turns the topic upside-down to look at it in this refreshing way. Yet, can’t that be said of other pursuits too? Can’t that be said of music or sport? Not everyone has the talent or skill to write and play music, yet we love to sing and tap our feet anyway. Not everyone has the knees to play football or the ability to swim, yet fans enjoy these sports with astounding gusto.
Is the difference that, unlike sports or music, we are all poets? In 2009, Tim Green seems to have said as much. Is it that the medium is language, something we all can do? But don’t we all have vocal chords, ears, and muscles as well? I do, but I’m not an athlete or a musician, and while I love music and sing in the car and shower, I have no desire to go learn how to play a guitar. What makes poetry different? Why has it had fewer fans than practitioners, or so it seems?
Well, it’s been changing and for the better, I think, especially over the (almost) decade that I’ve written this blog. Maybe the problem was not so much the “I” of the poet, the navel gazing, but the tendency of poets to address only a very limited audience. We can blame academia, we can blame ego, but there is nothing wrong with deeply studying a topic like poetry. And there is nothing wrong with writing about what the topic we know best: ourselves. Perhaps the key is to do so in a way that others can be drawn to, relate to, be shaken by or taken with.
As Adrienne Rich said, poetry “can speak to people who have themselves felt like monsters and say: you are not alone, this is not monstrous. It can disturb and enrapture.”
Billy Collins goes on to say, “Poetry need not be read by everyone—lots of intense activities have small audiences—but surely this distressing ratio can be changed so that poetry is enjoyed by people who have no professional interest in becoming poets.” It was good to read that one of his chief goals in creating his Poetry 180 project, back when he was poet laureate, was to bring a love of poetry back to high school, because I agree that is “where poetry goes to die.”
Yet Collins himself has frustrated me sometimes with what feels like an over-abundance of poems about poetry in his collections. I have a love-hate relationship with poems about poetry, because while they are fun and probably helpful to us as writers, their ubiquitous-ness is also evidence that we have been reading to each other for so long that we might be less likely to attract new readers who may look at us as an exclusive clique.
Look at it this way, do musicians play music mostly for other musicians? Sure songs about songs and movies about movies can be great fun for those in the know, but it worries me that there is such a vast number of poems about poems, that I wonder if we do not become our own victims and possibly lose our own audience by over-doing it. Who wants to listen to a clique that only talks in their own language and to each other? Meta-art, as they call it can be fun and extremely interesting for other artists, maybe for those outside of the art too. I just don’t want to be so self-focused that others can’t get into it.
Maybe meta-art becomes masturbatory, not that masturbation is a bad thing. It’s probably quite healthy and good to be that self aware. It only tends to be a problem if you the masturbator is constantly using it as an excuse to not bother trying to relate to and with other people. I suppose it’s not a choice between masturbation and lovemaking. Both can be done happily in one life.
There was a metaphor somewhere but I might have lost the thread. In any case, maybe it’s a question of balance.
So, while I cringe, even at my own poems about poetry (yes, we all write them on occasion, don’t we?), they can be helpful learning tools for us. Someone mentioned the Harshness of Charles Bukowski’s “Poetry Readings.” It is harsh, and it irks me a bit, but I also recognize a touch of brutal truth in it. Hear the tongue-in-cheek-y-ness of it in the incomparable voice of Tom O’Bedlam on the Spoken Verse channel on YouTube by clicking here.
But the last poem about poetry I want to leave with you as we start to steer this subject into more pleasant waters, is again by Billy Collins who addresses one of the problems, that I have mentioned before.
Thanks for taking the time to hear me out.