DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Apr 28 2011

A few words against ‘poetry’

by Jimmy L

We’re coming to the end of National Poetry Month, and as a poet myself, I always have conflicted feelings about it.  On the one hand, it is great that poetry is getting more attention.  On the other hand, it seems that the spotlight is often placed on only one spectrum of poetry: the stereotypically ‘poetic’.  When Oprah or Caroline Kennedy go on air and talk about how great poetry is, they’re often touting those aspects of poetry that most conform to our idea of what poetry should be: lovey dovey, rhyming, flowery, accessible, beautiful.  But just as often, poetry is the opposite of these things too.

One of the reasons I love and write poetry is that it can be the antithesis of what every other medium tries to tell us.  For instance, when people say that poetry is inaccessible or incomprehensible, I don’t want to prove them wrong.  Instead, I want to say “Look how much of the world around us today is incomprehensible.”  Most news outlets reassure us constantly that ‘Everything is simple and under control’ when clearly it’s not.  Just look at the gulf oil crisis (golf balls? really?), or the nuclear meltdown in Japan, or the financial crisis; the world is a complex place that we cannot always understand. What’s more, there are no easy answers. Poetry reflects this attitude and says that sometimes it’s OK that we don’t instantly understand everything around us. It’s OK to sit with that feeling of being in total mystery of something bigger, and learn be at home with it, to commune with it.

Poetry values that which we place less and less value on in modern society: incomprehension, complexity, mystery, ambiguity, nonsense, uncertainty, imagination, smallness, ugliness, vulnerability, slowness, silence, hard work (and many more). Rarely have I heard these qualities touted as the strengths of poetry, rather than shoved under the rug as something we don’t want to mention.  On top of that, poetry is one of the only places that I feel I can go to for this kind of relief from the instantly gratified hustle and bustle of our multi-tasking lives.

So these words against poetry are not really against poetry, but against an idealized version of poetry as seen in the media.  Hopefully we can all have a more complete conception of poetry than that.  And the best way to start is to read more of it.  Here are a few titles available at DCPL:

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Veronica W April 28, 2011 at 10:42 AM

Yes, life is often complex, incomprehensible, uncertain and just plain ugly and yes, the move today is towards “reality,” as seen by television programs and popular books. However, if that is my life, then in the things I can control (literature choices, for one) I may seek something different , so that I can dream and understand that beyond my experiences there is wonder, joy and assailable heights; perhaps this is why I prefer Renoir to Picasso. I remember reading “Richard Corey” in HS and coming away with an ineffable sadness. I have learned to appreciate the amazing skill of poets like Hughes and Angelou, but sometimes their messages cut to the bone and mirror my own reality. Hughes “We Wear the Mask” is a prime example. Anyway, as Andre Maurois so perfectly put it, “In literature as in love, we are astonished by what is chosen by others.”

Jimmy L April 28, 2011 at 11:33 AM

Yes, different strokes for different folks. But it’s a good thing that the poetic range allows for such variation, and I’m glad there are many other preferences out there as well.

Laura April 28, 2011 at 11:36 AM

Sometimes we go to literature for a “fix” — that’s what our favorite authors and genres may offer. But a real joy, even when it is tinged with saddness, comes from the fascination we find in what we don’t expect and weren’t looking for. When I taught high school and college English classes, students wanted to know whether it would be “on the test”. Life is the test, and sometimes a little testy, so everything is “on”. But the students who were high achievers and chasing the highest grades to get into the best schools were often the ones most frustrated by ambiguity. They wanted things to make sense, be answerable and clearly right or wrong by their interpretation. I love Jimmy’s more adult approach to his genre. Part of wisdom is not being too put off by what isn’t know, maybe can’t be known and by the unexpected. I myself am more than a little weary of “reality” tv that fits no reality I know. But poetry, ahh, now that is a reflection of many personal realities, and beyond that of peoples’ wordplay, imagination, and even efforts to articulate their fear. I’ve come to especially value poets sharing what disturbs them, what they aspire to understand or simply want to reflect without too much reflection.

Jimmy L April 29, 2011 at 9:20 AM

Thanks Laura, very well said . There’s one more thing I wanted to add: I’m sure there are exceptions, but I think most poets don’t set out to be difficult or obscure. The difficulty comes out of trying to express something very precise, something that cannot be easily simplified, something that lives within the seams of language itself (otherwise they’d write a memo instead, or shoot off an e-mail). I think some readers get frustrated when they think poets are TRYING to be difficult, and I empathize with this, but I don’t think that is the case most of the time. Of course, there are extremes. There are poems that are so incomprehensible as to feel like random words on a page. Then there are poems that are so predictable that you can guess the last line by just reading the first. I think most of our tolerances lie in the middle. For me, I like reading poems with lines or sounds I can relate to, but that also challenge me with mysterious and surprising word choices that seem a little beyond my immediate understanding, that keep me thinking and coming back to see why it works. Usually these are poems that I love but cannot tell you exactly why; the reason lies within the strange rhythms, connotations, and textures of the words themselves, so that my relation to the poem as a reader isn’t one of mere understanding, but an engagement that is more visceral and involves the entire body (the ear, the limbs, the voice).

naomi April 29, 2011 at 3:03 PM

i don’t think individual literary or artistic choices should be labeled good, bad, adult or childish. they are personal. veronica, i too like Renoir.

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