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:
- Five women poets (audio CD)
- The book of questions by Pablo Neruda
- The mooring of starting out by John Ashbery
- To disembark by Gwendolyn Brooks
- Collected Poems by Charles Olson
- Selected Poems by Langston Hughes
- Selected Poems by Robert Creeley
- Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke
- Poems, Prose and Letters by Elizabeth Bishop