You Don’t Even Like Poetry, or Do You?

This Week in Poetry, Even for Non-Poets

From "Eating Poetry"
Mark Strand, from “Eating Poetry”

I am truly tickled to see so much being written about poetry during this (inter)National Poetry Month to an audience outside the traditional poetry scene. Often people who claim to dislike poetry merely had a bad experience, likely in high school, as Billy Collins likes to say “the place where poetry goes to die.” But it may be that people who don’t care for poetry have just never had it presented to them well, or that it has been so long that they don’t remember. I could be more cynical about pop culture, but I get so caught up in that hope thing.

Last week the Huffington Post published “7 Poetry Collections for Every Type of Reader.” While that title is ambiguously more expansive than its article delivers, the seven books suggested are indeed appropriately excellent suggestions for various kinds of readers who might otherwise not read poems at all. I give the article a good score for starting with a book of Kay Ryan poems, and including some scraps of images from Emily Dickinson who wrote on everything from napkins to receipts. Bonus points for including the mention of Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You.”

Also of note was Flavorwire’s “50 Essential Books of Poetry that Everyone Should Read.” Granted, I wish they had included Yeats, and you’ll quickly notice an “essential” favorite of your own that has been left out, but it’s impossible to cover every highlight in 50 books. So if you have books to add to it, I encourage you to write a follow-up post and link to it in the comments. Still, the rationale behind their selections is sound, and you will find many solid recommendations in their list, whether they be for you yourself, or for your friend who thinks he “hates” poems.

Looking Back

Nearly two years ago I wrote a blog post that still gets hits and attention, and shows up in my “most popular” posts stats, so I went to give it a visit today and realized that in the comments there were some excellent points that I seemed to have missed. I don’t know if anyone will get the message that I replied to them two years later, but I just couldn’t help myself.

The post entitled “Why (Even We) Hate Poetry” was an extension of this discussion started by J. Lynn Sherridan on her blog Writing on the SunTo boil it down we mainly discussed two extremes of the poetry world, or maybe I should say what passes as poetry. First we agreed we hated what she called “goobery poetry.” Here’s what she had to say about that:

I hate rainbow poems unless they’re for kids or all in fun. I hate bubble bath poetry. I hate reading a poem and feeling like I need to scrape the sentiment off with a spatula.

It took me the longest time to figure out why. I think it’s because some poems just don’t ring true. A love poem can be beautiful but it must sound sincere and authentic. Not contrived.

But we also seemed to agree that while poetry takes some effort to really grasp as opposed to simply enjoying a passing listen, we also hated the idea of difficulty for difficulty-sake poems, especially when in an attempt to avoid over-sentimentality are so stand-offish as to feel completely without guts or soul. Here is a bit of what I had to say about that:

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 philosophical 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.”

This sort of thing seems to be less prevalent than I recall from the workshops and early slams of the late nineties and 2000s, but I am still puzzled by how frequently I read in very reputable and respected literary journals poetry that is so. . . I don’t know, lifeless? I don’t wish to contribute to the anti-elitist cliché, but the flowery ornament of intellect and thesaurus is, when it comes down to it, just as fake and flat, just as horrible and unlovely as the flowery sap of insincere greeting card sentiment.poultry

Even if the form is precise, the language lovely, the music, the meter, the sound. . . there must be some sense, something in it that pulls or kicks at our gut, or am I missing the point of art? My point is that both saying something and saying it splendidly are important. Even the nonsense of Lewis Carrol and Kenneth Koch has an emotional sense, that for lack of a better description, feels right, or surprises while it fulfills. The language must say something, even if it is ambiguous, that moves us, and it must say it in a way that recognizes itself as language (to borrow favorite professor Stephen Whitworth‘s phrase). Good poetry is not merely form and intelligent language, not merely a word-puzzle, but also a human event, even if only a small one.

I really like the way RKHouse put it:

I don’t look for a poet to impress me that he is smarter than me. There are a lot of people who 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.

And I would like to add that the reward should be worth the effort put into the task. I don’t want to bust my knuckles open breaking into a safe only to find a five dollar bill, unless that five dollar bill is somehow the most beautiful five dollar bill the world has ever seen, or maybe it’s the first five dollar bill that my father ever earned at the business that supported our family through difficult times.

Ah, but there it is, sentiment again. Why are poets afraid of it? Probably because most don’t do it well; it comes off as false or preachy, immature, and it’s delivered without skill or ingenuity. Maybe it is cliché, stated in phrases we’ve heard it over and over. So make it new, as Pound said. But don’t give up the human part of the humanities. Poetry is more than mere artifice.

In a recent blog post that I will try to come back to this week, Scott Edward Anderson put it this succinctly: “Poetry should be neither a Rubik’s cube nor a road sign.” I perhaps should have quoted him and left it at that. 

Nebulous Promises for the Week Ahead

I have mentioned that I want to share with you some of the many exciting things happening for National Poetry Month for both writers and readers, but there is just so much of it, and so much I’ve been catching up on myself. I will attempt to link up to a few of the folks I admire in hopes that you’ll enjoy the ride and maybe find a bit of inspiration for your own self there, whether it be to write or to enjoy the reading.

Speaking of reading, someone in  one of the above discussions that I linked to had mentioned the importance of reading poetry out loud. I have done some readings in the past of poets whose work I adore (maybe a hundred and forty on YouTube, and I think more than fifty on Soundcloud). Since this is the first NPM in a while that I haven’t directly participated in the challenges, either of sharing or composing, I promise to repost a few of my favorites.

And since a dear friend of mine promises to sick the “old Nazi” Ezra Pound on me for turning it into a verb, “Poem on!”

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10 Replies to “You Don’t Even Like Poetry, or Do You?”

  1. I’ve been thinking of you over the past few days while composing a post about poetry in my head. You’ve touched on the very things I had in mind, and you’ve said it far more intelligently. Darn you poet-types. 🙂

    One exact point that I’d been mulling over was this, something I hadn’t thought of before: I had friends in the late 90s/early 2000s who attended, participated in, and even organized poetry slams all the time, and there was a certain amount of intellectual or aesthetic superiority bordering on arrogance involved that turned me off.

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    1. “there was a certain amount of intellectual or aesthetic superiority bordering on arrogance involved that turned me off.” Bingo. Actually, HC, I think I rambled quite a bit. You nailed it. Between that end and the greeting cards at the other extreme, that about covers it. The real challenge though is to have the emotion and some intelligence in the design. That takes guts, bravery and balance. But we humans prefer the live out the extremes it seems.

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  2. You know, you always say the best things.

    There is nothing worse than reading a poem that you know was written in order for the author to show-off, to attempt to feel superior to the reader. Until I really started exploring poetry, I don’t think I realized just how many of that type of poet there actually were.

    I am on various email lists for a “Poem of the Day”, and a few weeks ago, one poem arrived, and I read it, and reread it, and read it once more just to be sure that I wasn’t missing something. Turns out, no, I wasn’t missing anything. There was no meaning to the poem. Or at least no meaning that I could determine. It wasn’t even one of those meaningless poems that are just exercises in prosody. And, then, at the end of the poem, there was a blurb from the author, talking about what the poem meant, what they were thinking about when they wrote it, etc. The author blurb was damn near as unintelligible as the poem itself. I often suspect that the audience for these types of poems are sycophants, who have no idea what the poem means but wish to appear as smart and intellectual as the poet, so they oooh and aaah enthusiastically.

    Interestingly, you’d think that the Establishment would realize that the most popular poems are the ones that the greatest number of people can understand. There’s a reason why poets like Billy Collins, Seamus Heaney, and Mary Oliver sell a reasonable amount of books — people can enjoy the poetry without having to have dictionaries and Wikipedia close at hand to make sense of all the references.

    Not that there’s not a place for that kind of poetry — there are people who write it, and who chose to read it. So, there’s some sort of audience for it. But for it to be held up as superior is not right.

    Though, honestly, poetry is not the only art form that has this issue — most artistic forms have these disputes: literature, painting, music.

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    1. Yes, that’s a really excellent point; it happens in so many other art forms. I wonder why it bothers me so much in poetry. Perhaps because today while standing in a bookstore reading a poet like that, wondering if there was something I missed. . . It was a nonsense poem, I knew that. But it wasn’t like the kind of nonsense that takes me somewhere interesting. It wasn’t Mark Strand digging a tunnel and coming to terms with the man in the front yard who was himself. . . it wasn’t American surreal dreamscape like Kenneth Koch’s “You Were Wearing.” It was just meaningless lines strung togethe, meant to appear to mean something, but ultimately like some modern paintings, to frustrate meaning entirely. . . He could at least have made it enjoyable, but only the last two lines were fun.

      Go ahead, leave me disoriented, but please make it fun, or interesting, or scary. . . something. . . but it was just an old man playing with his words like he was in 11th grade acting the part of the cool poet. It depressed me that this particular man is a major part of the establishment. It encouraged me to think of poets you mentioned, still alive.

      So other arts, yeah. I guess what depresses me is that aside from Opera and certain other niche’s ours is such a small difficult little stage to get onto and be noticed. Not a lot of poetry readers. But it is improving, and I think I need to keep moving the way I am moving. I cannot please those people. I just can’t, and don’t want to. I may some day be recognized by some of them, but probably with that polite smile as they say behind my back, “accessible,” as if it’s a curse. 😉

      Thank you for the honor of these comments here, John. It means a lot. Pardon the rambling random response.

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