My esteemed Gather colleague and connection Nick K. recently posted a plaintive piece on poetry appreciation, or lack thereof. "Oh cursed verse, I rarely get ye" cites a few of Nick K.'s personal milestones in poetry education (in what is coming to be that author's charming, self-effacing, downtrodden-not-quite-everyman style). Nick offers these misadventures as the possible root of his poetry-aversion, or perhaps poetry-intolerance. Fortunately, his issue is not pathological, like metrophobia, also known as "poetry fear" or "hatred of poetry" (and for bona fide metrophobes, you can find professional help by, I shit you not,Â clicking here: http://www.changethatsrightnow.com/problem_detail.asp?SDID=4382:1684).
No, Nick's condition is one of aesthetics. His first encounters with poetry occurred early on within the public education system. That this occasion turned out to be disastrous and traumatic yields little surprise. He can hardly be blamed for starting off on the wrong (metric) foot.
Subsequent kerfuffles were the result of his own poor judgment: trying to compose adolescent love doggerel, using the word "limpid" in mixed company, betting an entire month's salary that Joyce Kilmer was a woman (sorry, dude, but I needed the cash), and, what every red-blooded American male has done or will do at some point in his life, fake knowledge of French symbolist poets in order to score.
Not surprisingly, his distaste for the form became palpable. This is sad. As I used to tell students during my days at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, "Poems can be right purty." They weren't my students because I didn't actually teach at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, but I did hang around outside the buildings, cadging cigarettes and lying about my knowledge of French symbolist poets.
Most recently, Nick's commitment to continued self-improvement has compelled him yet again to attempt an appreciation of poetry, and yet again he seems to have embarked on a path that, with all due respect, seems best suited to the well-meaning but frightfully lost. To quote him: "There are a number of poets on Gather so I thought this would be a great place to start." Forgive me while I chuckle warmly but dismissively.
But poor Nick is not alone. Given the verbal snorts, blats, and eructations that are brazenly posted and somberly hosannaed as "poems," it's easy to understand why even the most forgiving and open-hearted student might come away feeling not only unedified, but gunky. But appreciating poetry is really very simple. Or not.
ÂAll PoemsÂ are, Ultimately, aboutÂ Death
This is far and away the most valuable bit of understanding for the fledging poetry reader. All poems by anyone, ever, throughout the history of humankind, right up through, say, 30 minutes ago, are about capital dee Death. Poems about birth are really about Death. Poems about trees or flowers or pretty birds? Death. Love poems? Sorry, they're really Death poems.
Death is the great equalizer, the universal constant. Everything goes away, everything dies. Especially the poets. Raindrops and sunsets, clouds and waterfalls? Do these, you ask, die? What do poems about these things have to do with Death? Well, these things will go away, too, eventually. Billions of years from now, the sun will nova and flash-fry this pretty planet, and it will all be as if it never happened. In the meantime--and here's the rub, to steal one of Nick's lines--the poets will go away long before that. People don't like to imagine a world without them in it to perceive it, and poets are especially twitchy about this. Elegies about so many of life's more beautiful things (and there are quite a few) are really Death songs, because Beauty dies, and the appreciators of Beauty (the poets) die, too, and they're not happy about it. At all. Even when they pretend to be happy, they're really not. Which is one of the reasons they're writing poems, because they really haven't reconciled themselves to their eventual extinction.
ÂPoetry is about Conciseness and Precision
On the surface, this might seem a difficult concept, if not oxymoronic, especially if one is trying to catch one's breath amidst the poetic afflatus the spreads like swamp gas through Gather poetry klatches. It's about precision? Conciseness? But you just said even poems about kittens and sugared violets are really about Death? Gah? Why not be straightforward and write about Death? Why do you have to confuse matters with kittens and sugared violets?
Well, good poetry is both concise and precise. Vladimir Nabokov wrote, "The more we try to be precise, the more we are bound to be metaphorical." Metaphors, similes, analogies: their purpose is to affect a greater precision and conciseness in what (ideally) a poet is trying to convey. The process of likening--and very precise, appropriate likening--has a psychological, emotional, intellectual, and even chemical effect on our big, complex, evolved brains. It can layer tier after tier of meaning in a single, simple phrase.
Poets--the good ones, anyway--strive to produce work that provides readers with pleasure, instruction, knowledge, and moral guidance. Language is a rhetorical force that, when properly wielded, inspires us to think about the gift of life and this world in terms slightly broader than our own puny annoyances and disappointments, our own creatureliness. Is that necessary? Ummm? probably not. Is it meaningful? Certainly. Language, its nuances and complexities, the way a carefully and expertly turned phrase can change our perception of something we thought we thought? That's something uniquely human and really pretty fascinating when you consider it. Words. Words can change how we feel. Words can change how we think about something. Words can give us something entirely new and unexpected to think about. New and different ways of talking about recognizable things, feelings, emotions, and conditions can decidedly change the way we think about those things, and deepen our overall understanding of the world.
Exempli gratia, from a love sonnet by Willy the Shake: "Love's not Time's fool/Though rosy lips and cheeks/Beneath his bending sickle's compass comes/Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks/But bears it out even to the edge of doom." Contemporary literal translation: "I love you. I mean, really, I love you. And it's not just about how you look or how you smell right now. It's about you. And I know that, all too soon, you'll become old and hatchet-faced and wrinkled as a walnut ["the more we try to be precise," etc.], in some nursing home somewhere with a diaper on and tubes coming out of you. But I'll still feel the same about you as I do right now?"
But Willy's version transcends our literal, frank, earnest, lover's speech and the mundane indignities of our mortal decay. He transcends a direct exchange with a specific interlocutor because he's speaking on everyone's behalf as well as his own, but he's speaking to each of us individually. The language he chose, his personifications of Love and Time, his economical phrasing... Paradoxically, poetry is simultaneously authoritarian and democratic. As Guy Davenport wrote, "The primal importance of the poem is what it can add to the individual mind."
Words, written 400 years ago, still giving us pause, still stopping us if only briefly, still making us reflect, expressing sensibilities still terribly familiar to us, and still relevant to our condition...
ÂListen to What a Writer Has to Say about His Own Work as the Basis for Evaluation.
I realize that this bit of advice runs counter to the orthodoxy. A piece of writing should speak for itself. If the poet did his work, he need not say more.
But I'm disinclined to let writers, particularly poets, off the hook that easily. I'm not suggesting that you believe what a writer says about his work, or that you rely on what he says to form your own interpretation. I just think it's instructive, not to mention revealing, to hear what a writer has to say about what he tried to accomplish, and use that as a basis or starting point for determining whether or not he pulled it off.
Let's face it, until recently, most readers hadn't the opportunity to ask an writer what he was trying to say. But here we are on Gather, a wildly democratic and interactive forum, with direct access to the publishing poet. The medium they've chosen to display their work behooves them to play nice.
For example, about a week ago, Edward Nudelman, Gather's poet laureate, published a poem titled "Proving the Theory of Relativity on a Tidal River."Â A commenter, lynn a., wrote "I read this poem and then read it again and then read it again. [She's a reader to die for.] I hope you explain what you were thinking. Guessing was not ever something I enjoyed. I can read into it life/death, war/effects, worldly conditions/politics/helplessness. I'd rather know what you were saying." To which Edward Nudelman replied: "I understand Lynn,Â [sic]Â but what are you to do when reading other poets/poems not accessible by community forums such as this?"
Well, that's not really the point, is it? Sure, when Lynn reads a poem in The New Yorker, she doesn't have the opportunity to zip off such a question to the poet. But Edward Nudelman hasn't published his poem in The New Yorker. He's published it here, and allowed both comments and ratings. Further, he writes: "...I have given explications for my poems before, but I'm starting to think it's better that I don't."
Why not? Again, the nature of the medium obligates the writer to respond. It's insincere to use the free-wheeling, self-publishing of the public forum and then take an ivory tower attitude towards feedback that's not simply outright praise. The poems published here are not the result of editorial favor. The only person who has decided that the poem is worthy of publication is the poet. And we all know about poets.
And what's wrong with trying to cultivate your potential audience. As in the cases of both Lynn A. and Nick K., who may be inexperienced readers of poetry and, despite their best efforts, still find some things they are reading to be somewhat impenetrable, why not give them some helpful guidance?
Free Verse Ain't That Free
Robert Frost said that writing free verse, or vers libre, was like playing tennis without a net. Lacking strict meter and rhyme, where's the challenge? But even free verse does follow a form of sorts: at the very least, a cadenced one, if nothing else. As Eliot wrote, "No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job." Â Free verse is not, as Joy M. crisply points out in one of her comments to Nick K.'s piece, a stream of consciousness experiment delineated by arbitrary carriage returns. Rhythms are irregular, rhymes are forsaken, but a cadence or several cadences will at least be present to some extent. Look for it and, more importantly, listen for it. Poetry is an oral tradition. Even in this democratic age, there must be music.