Friday, October 18, 2013

What is Wrong With Poetry?(#5) I attempt to tackle it.

I should start by thanking the four good souls who helped me start this thing. Thoughtful people, no surprise, led to thoughtful responses. I also should note that I sent this question to a few other people I termed the 'poetry mafia.' More responses could very well still appear here. If anyone out there in Internet land wants to contribute please let me know.

This project, if you will, began with my own general curiosity. Why do so many people fear poetry? How can I better change that sad fact? I come at this topic from two vantage points--one as an amateur lover of poetry and the written word. Second, as a bookseller.

Some poets I love are: Rebecca Lindenberg, Frank Bidart, Ruth Stone, Tracy K. Smith, Jack Gilbert, C.K. Williams, Maurice Manning, Jeffrey Yang(as writer and editor), Barbara Ras, James Wright, Natasha Tretheway, Yehuda Amichai, Major Jackson, Thomas McGrath, Louise Gluck, Yusef Komunyakaa, Brian Turner, James Dickey, Li-Young Lee and Marie Howe. That isn't a list anyone should adhere to. Much like wine or music or style, I strongly believe that all of our tastes change and evolve. So it should go with poetry.

Poetry and short stories are the two oft maligned categories that I fight for. Many readers will say, "oh, I don't read poetry/short stories." It is very much like children who are unwilling to eat certain vegetables. They do not know what they are missing.

As far as poetry goes, I am of the simple opinion that one should try lots of different things and see what you like. Liking something does not equate to relativism.

I see poetry everywhere. In church and fast food joint signs. I like about 10% of spoken word and graffiti. Good books of poems are like a record. No single covers what it can be. What I love about poetry is that it makes me pay attention to the line, to a detail, to a word. It demands and deserves ones time.

Yet what is wrong with poetry? It can be insular. It can be obtuse. It can mirror the problems any other form of art must combat. And this one simple fact: it doesn't sell well enough to carry it's weight in almost every single bookstore in the world. Maybe that is okay in the eyes of many. It can be a labor of love. Bookstores, however, cannot be museums of words. The books must actually be bought by customers. Or else the entire thing is a failure.

I love you, poetry. I do truly and wholeheartedly. But we have some shit to get through. Mary Oliver and Billy Collins might not be adored by the poetry cognoscenti. They may, in fact, be looked down upon. But I feel that is the wrong angle to take. Reading them could lead to other poems. Reading them could to something else. Or not.Either way, I'm good with it

To close, I give you a prose poem that I adore. I carried a copy of it in my wallet for many years. Now I have a copy on my desk. I know it by heart.

"Part of Eve's Discussion"
It was like the moment when a bird decides not to eat from your hand,
and flies, just before it flies, the moment the rivers seem to still
and stop because a storm is coming, but there is no storm, as when
a hundred starlings lift and bank together before they wheel and drop,
very much like the moment, driving on bad ice, when it occurs to you
your car could spin, just before it slowly begins to spin, like
the moment just before you forgot what it was you were about to say,
it was like that, and after that, it was still like that, only
all the time.

--Marie Howe


  1. So, Naomi Shihab Nye, one of my favorite poets, talks about poetry and life in her very well-known poem, "Valentine for Ernest Mann." It says so well what I try to do, and it's one of my favorite poems, too. Thanks for a good week thinking about poetry.

    You can't order a poem like you order a taco.
    Walk up to the counter, say, "I'll take two"
    and expect it to be handed back to you
    on a shiny plate.

    Still, I like your spirit.
    Anyone who says, "Here's my address,
    write me a poem," deserves something in reply.
    So I'll tell you a secret instead:
    poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
    they are sleeping. They are the shadows
    drifting across our ceilings the moment
    before we wake up. What we have to do
    is live in a way that lets us find them.

    Once I knew a man who gave his wife
    two skunks for a valentine.
    He couldn't understand why she was crying.
    "I thought they had such beautiful eyes."
    And he was serious. He was a serious man
    who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
    just because the world said so. He really
    liked those skunks. So, he reinvented them
    as valentines and they became beautiful.
    At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
    in the eyes of the skunks for centuries
    crawled out and curled up at his feet.

    Maybe if we reinvent whatever our lives give us
    we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock
    in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
    And let me know.

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  4. It's a good question. In my opinion, the short answer is: poetry. Popular poetry used to be accessible, readable, rhythmnic, and memorizable. For various (upsetting) reasons, free-form blob became preferable and academically more valid than rhyming couplets with topics comprehensible to the average eighth grader. Recorded music changed it, as photography changed art. (Why read rhymes when you can sing rhyming things?) I love poetry, but not much past the 1930's. You don't get rhymes that stick in your head like pop songs anymore. ("The gobble'uns'll get you if you don't watch out." "'I am half-sick of shadows,' said the Lady of Shallot.") A lot of modern poetry encourages one in navel-gazing ("It contains/ lint/ i was attached/ to my mother's womb/ with it.") Check out Doing Our Own Thing by John McWhorter for upsetting thoughts on the topic.

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