Fear/Dislike of Poetry--Reading Poetry Part II

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Sorry, I will prevail upon your patience/endurance once again today.

Tom made such a good point in the comments box that I wanted to pull it out and center a post around it:

I can't speak for all the poetry-shy, but I suspect there are many for whom poetry is not disheartening or uncomfortable so much as frustrating, because they regard a poem as a puzzle to be properly arranged rather than a toy to be played with.

Also, don't underestimate the impact of exposure to bad poetry.

With respect to the first point--"because they regard a poem as a puzzle to be properly arranged." This is one of the institutional defects of our educational system. Whether they intend to or not, whether it is conscious on their part or not, when often leave high school with the notion, garnered from our teachers, that there is a "meaning" to a poem that can be puzzled out if only you read the words right and get all the symbols in a row. Many teachers graded our papers on how well we understood THE meaning of the poem. And we always speak in terms of "the" meaning of a poem as though there were only one.

Well now, ladies and gentlemen, I am about to share a secret of the profession. Sometimes a poem has no meaning at all--sometimes it catches a moment, a sensation, an emotion, a strange pattern, and does little or nothing else. Such poems should not be excavated, interrogated, turned inside out or otherwise discombobulated. They should be savored like fine wine. Take Ezra Pound's famous imagist haiku:

At a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet black bough.

Any meaning it has is drawn not from the words but from the sense they conjure up in the reader. Are petals on a wet black bow unhappy, happy, formless, industrial, bad, good? Are they anything of themselves? For me this suggests the magnificent paintings and engravings of Hokusai and the entire Ukiyo-e painting school of Edo period Japan. In other words--good, very good. For my English teacher in my Senior year of College, this was an image of blank despair. Who is right about it? Both of us. One brings one set of images, one another, but the poem (as a proper imagist poem should) makes no value judgment at all. Yes, you can do intricate semantic analysis to try to determine how Pound felt about it, but, pardon me for speaking frankly, who cares? Pound is dead, his poem still lives and he has no say about what it means to anyone.

I could leave an entire book of possible meanings and intentions in my poems, but if they don't say it themselves, a ream of prose exposition isn't going to help.

So, the first secret, there is no THE meaning. There is the multiplicity of meanings that spring from your interaction with the poem. Just as when you read scripture, it seems to reinvent itself revealing new facets depending on when and in what emotional state you read it, so too with great poetry.

Now, we mustn't lay aside the most critical part of Tom's very good points.

Also, don't underestimate the impact of exposure to bad poetry.

Over at Lofted Nest there was a discussion going on about how academia has seized and placed a strangle-hold on poetry. Bad poetry comes in two versions: the Helen Steiner Rice/Rod McKuen school and the Poeme-Concrete-and-other-pretentiously-named-psuedo-schools. There is a wealth of bad poetry out there to read. It can be found in every anthology and in every course on poetry. Even more so now that our focus is more "multi-culti" and representation than on quality. In most of these schools the idea of poetry is carried to rarified heights of utter abstruseness and silliness.

One of the poets ill-favored at Lofted Nest is William Carlos Williams. I don't happen to agree with the evaluation, but I can agree with their essential point, which is that academics have taken what is a cute little imagist joke and turned it into some portentously deep meaningful poetic experience. I'm sorry, a red wheel barrow glazed with rain among some chickens is a delightful rural image, nothing more, nothing less. Absolutely nothing depends upon it. Williams knew it, and anyone who reads it for the real pleasure of it knows it. It's a toss off. I happen to think it is a nice toss-off and it conjures up all kinds of invented memories and imagined rural states. But, let's face it, it is not fraught with deep meaning. Yes, you can read a tremendous amount into it.

Even more silly is the adulation over the lunchbox note of Williams to his wife This Is Just to Say. Again a cute idea with a couple of nice touches--but really the stuff of parody. These are not the stuff of say Wallace Steven's "Disillusionment of 10 O'Clock," The Emperor of Ice Cream, or even the imagist riff Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, a poem which both in title and in the haiku- and tanka-like strophes suggests Hokusai's famous print series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. (The number varies up to 100. The prints inspired a story by Roger Zelazny "24 Views of Mount Fuji." The Series includes the very famous print "The Great Wave of Kanagawa.) They are not even cummings sonnet "the cambridge ladies live in furnished souls. . ."

That is one branch of bad poetry. I won't include examples because there is no need, you've had enough stuffed down your throat. The other side of this is the schmaltzier than hallmark school of sing-song ring-rhymy verse that canters along to the tune of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and inevitably end-rhymes no matter how tortured or convoluted a line must be produced in order to make it work. You've all probably seen much of this, but one of the great mavens of this sort of thing is Helen Steiner Rice. I'll reproduce a single line which is sufficient to encompass the oeuvre, "Peace on earth will come to stay, When we live Christmas every day." Now, this is bad poetry. That is not to say there is not a modicum of enjoyment in it, but it simply does not do a service to either rhyme or meter and trivializes a great art. There is no harm in liking it, and rather like reading "Captain Underpants" books, if it allows you access to poetry, it is good to read it. But it doesn't celebrate the greatness of great poetry.

These two factors--trying to puzzle out meaning where what the poet may have intended is "a momentary taste of being from the well amid the waste," and constant exposure to the bad poetry academics and greeting card writers push on us as exemplary of the art--are truly enough to drain all the joy from poetry. But there is a sufficiently large oeuvre between these two poles that you will find much to enjoy if you keep in mind that poetry is an invitation to come out and play, to frolic in the sun, or to have a conversation on the porch with the poet. T.S. Eliot doesn't often frolic, but if one looks at Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats one gets a sense of the playfulness and genuine love of language that underlay all great poets.

Poetry is a much misunderstood, mistaught, and maligned art. I love the language, I love to get inside and crawl around and see all sorts of things that one cannot see standing outside and merely using it as though it were a tool. It is a tool, but it is the gracious and wonderful gift of God as well--and it were well to use it as such.

The short version of this is: I concur precisely with Tom's well-made and cogent points.

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Okay, but if you're one of the poetry shy (like me), how do you navigate between the Scylla and the Charybdis of bad poetry?

Where might you start reading profitably?

Dear MamaT,

You are not in the category that I would consider poetry-shy. Your poetry is merely disguised as lyrics to hymns. Seems to me that I see a lot of those over at your place. But your questions is really good, and rather than hogging the stage, I'd like for others to offer their insights, because I suspect many ask the same question.



There are some William Carlos Williams poems that I like, but when you read critics saying that each of the stanzas in "Red Wheelbarrow" are shaped like wheelbarrows you know right away they have too much time on their hands. I think your take on it is good. There's nothing wrong with playing around with words other than making believe the play is something more.

Another category of poetry beyond what you mention, I think, might be "occasional" poetry. Poetry written for a specific audience on a specific occasion. Elegies, funny little ditties about friends or family, love poetry between two people. Sometimes occasional poetry rises to greatness -- like the love poems between the Brownings. Other times it is treasured by a few and never sees the light of day. Someone finding and reading occasional poetry might think it bad, but it may have truly affected people at a certain time and place.

I find these poets accessible: Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Lee Masters' "Spoon River Anthology." Carl Sandburg seems to have fallen out of favor but there is much of him I like.

Louise Gluck (pronounced Glick) wrote a small volume of poems called "Wild Iris" that I go back to again and again. It contains poems between flowers in a garden and the gardener (the poet) and between the gardener/poet and God.

Steven, keep this up and you'll get accreditation!

Dan: "Occasional poetry" = Mouse Poetry? (Tee hee!) Why, yes, I do think my poetry rose to greatness (and then disappeared under the swell of reality!:-0)

Seriously, thank you for the suggestions. I will check out something at the library today!



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on April 27, 2005 5:22 PM.

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