Awhile back I asked this question to several people who live in the world of poetry. Writers of it, editors of it, professional advocates for this praised and defamed form. The question can be looked at in a variety of ways: is it earnest or antagonistic or foolish or too difficult to answer? I got some great responses and have decided to split this post into five parts. Batting lead-off is Patricia Kirkpatrick--whose most recent book, "Odessa" from Milkweed Editions, won the MN Book Award for Poetry.
WHAT IS WRONG WITH POETRY?
Nothing is wrong with poetry. National Poetry Month occurs in April. Garrison Keillor reads poetry daily on the radio. Poetry appears online. Poetry slams bring people who haven’t come–or been invited–to poetry before. The Poetry Foundation website–among others–offers lists of poems about gardening or getting married. College creative writing programs are burgeoning and the enrollments–and tuition payments-of students who want to study writing and become writers keep traditional English
programs afloat. Teachers complain that more people want to write poetry than
to read it, and there’s some truth to that. But poetry is alive if not always well. I sense that poetry is showing up more often and more meaningfully in the daily lives of Americans than it has for a long time. I’m guessing that the question “What is wrong with poetry?” has something to do with the fact that not a lot of people, other than poets and sometimes not even poets, want to read it. Does ‘wrong’ mean ‘difficult?’ Does ‘difficult’mean ‘inaccessible?’Does ‘inaccessible’ mean ‘wrong?’What is right about poetry is that, as Kurt Vonnegut once noted, poets extend the language and we live with, if not in, language. What is right about poetry is that,confused or grief-stricken, inspired or passionate, dreaming or melancholy, we share it when we fall in love, a child dies, or a bridge is built. And beautiful, charged, mysterious, and crafted poems are being written. Of course poetry can be difficult to read and even obscure. Sometimes a poem baffles me so completely, I change the question to ‘what is wrong with me?’
An aside. There is a current of contemporary poetry thought of as experimental or hybrid which, influenced by philosophy, other media, and science as well as literature, favors the process of writing a poem over its resolution. Such hybrid poems, according to Cole Swenson, “honor the avant-garde mandate to renew the forms and expand the boundaries of poetry—thereby increasing the expressive potential of language itself….” I went to graduate school in San Francisco when the influencial “Language Poets” were prominent, but I was influenced not converted.
Poetry is difficult because we live in difficult times. More difficult than other times? Muriel Rukeyser writes in The Life of Poetry published in 1949, years before people were multitasking with cell phones or American school children were slaughtered in classrooms, “The angry things that have been said about our poetry have also been said about our time. They are both ‘confused,’ ‘chaotic,’ ‘violent,‘obscure.’” Much that is often cited as confusing and chaotic in poetry, the unrhymed lines, the quick jumps and juxtapositions, have been qualities of poetry for hundreds of years.
Poetry is difficult because its concentrated patterns of language and silence create intersections between the visible and invisible worlds. Poetry isn’t journalism or sociology or simply anecdotes. A poem doesn’t have a right answer or mean one thing despite how many teachers have insisted to students that it does. Poetry is difficult because there’s a lot of it out there, some of it not very good, and how do you know where to begin or learn to tell the good from the bad? Poetry is difficult because to write or read it requires time, sometimes patience, often solitude or at the least quiet. People are busy; overworked, underpaid. Some people don’t read anything: novels, the newspaper, the positions of political candidates whose decisions will affect their lives.
South African playwright Athol Fugard once complained that there are so many incredible stories in America and “nobody is telling them.” I don’t take that to mean poets should write more narrative poetry. Poet Jim Moore used to ask his students what books of poetry they would take to the hospital. I ‘ve been to the hospital, where I had a baseball sized brain tumor removed from my skull, and I know what books I took. This is from “If Time is An Engine,” by Eleanor Lerman in The Mystery of Meteors.
“The sky is blue by day, blue in the evening/but I know the way of the hidden stars/and I’m still alive, I still know secrets/There is nothing I have left undone/ So my keys are on the table./ You can sell my/ clothes…”
How difficult should poetry become? Is there a tipping point at which a poetry’s difficulty overtakes its ability to be read or received by someone other than the poet?
I think poets should be concerned with those questions.If you are a poet, who do you want to read your poetry? If you are a reader, when was the last time you read a book of poetry? Gave a poem to a child? Copied a poem in your own handwriting? I love remembering what I once heard Mark Doty say: the longer you can stay underwater, the further you can see in the dark.
If you don’t respond to one poem, choose another. The poets are there: Oliver, Dickinson, Howe. Rasmussen, Clifton, Sheck. Transtromer, Sutphen, Farah. Li Ch’ing-Chao, Sayers, Yau. The poets are there, and I believe the readers are too, especially if the rest of us, writers, teachers, editors, parents, and booksellers, help us find each other.
Patricia Kirkpatrick, August 2013