This is a different type of column for me in that it isn’t for my typical audience, meaning people who are already interested in poetry in some way. This column is specifically written for people who have absolutely no interest in poetry. Before I get into the meat of it I want to tell you why.
One of the topics that comes up a lot in poetry circles is, why isn’t the audience larger for poetry? Theories abound, and many of them are right in their own ways. There is no one reason, considering the number of people who commit an act of poetry in any given year, why its audience isn’t larger. There are even arguments to be had about how to define that audience (another column to come). In any event, most poets and poetry critics agree that, considering poetry’s reach throughout history, an audience of some size and note should exist for an art so old and varied.
One of the recurring problems with critics speaking on why something isn’t more popular in general is that they talk about how hard it is to access an art form and dismiss what isn’t hard to access about it as facile. A lot of their observations come off like this:
“Dude, you should totally get this [obscure punk band with 3 songs]. The Ramones were WAY overrated. You don’t know anything about punk if you like the Ramones.”
That sort of thing. If you’re the kind of reader who simply must have it in poetry terms think of it like this:
“My good man, until you’ve dined with Stein you have no palette for poetry. However shall you find your way into a genuine appreciation of the written word? Through BLANK VERSE?!”
(Spit out wine through nose, gag, mumble something about Eliot or post-modernism, etc.)
Anyhow, I wanted to take some time here to dismantle that excuse, the I-Don’t-Get-It excuse, or IDGIT as I like to call it. (Of course it’s pronounced just like it looks, and perhaps, around the edges a little, means exactly what it means in old Western films.) This will, at times, feel a little workshop-like, or remind you of when you were in high school again and Mrs. Brandenburg was trying to stuff poetry down your throat. I assure you that it won’t hurt a bit and unlike high school, you are welcome to get up and go to the bathroom without a pass any time you see fit. I have picked the poems for this exercise very carefully, so as not to bore you or scare you off.
Understand that if, by the end of this article, you are not compelled to seek out another poem on your own or bring it up in conversation during the course of the next week then you and poetry were possibly not meant to be. At the very least you can remove the excuse that it is “too difficult to understand” from the list of reasons why you have no interest in it. Perhaps that second goal should be our focus here anyway. While I give great workshop, I don’t want to be responsible for your entire relationship to poetry. Don’t be blaming me because you don’t like good art.
1) Poetry understands your pain.
A lot of people say it’s too hard to understand and that the poet just comes off like they’re trying to be obscure and indecipherable. The first thing I want you to know is that POETRY KNOWS THIS. Poets have not always been very accessible – many remain this way and on purpose – and that’s okay because there are plenty of poets and poems out there that want very much to be your friend. For instance here is a poem that speaks directly to the issue.
Poem For People That Are Understandably Too Busy To Read Poetry
by Stephen Dunn
Relax. This won’t last long.
Good. Now here’s what poetry can do.
Imagine yourself a caterpillar.
How was that? Pretty awesome, right? Pretty laid back for a poem, right? Almost like a conversation. The thing I like to point out about this poem is how Dunn flies in that stuff that you supposedly don’t like about poetry at the very end, but by the time you get to it you’re primed for it so it goes down smooth…like Budweiser dripping from a waterfall!
2) Poetry doesn’t always read like a poem.
Poets have done some interesting things with poems, and thank God for it. Expecting all poems to look the same is like expecting all of the songs you hear to be 3-minutes long. Think of all the cool songs you’d have missed out on if this were true! Same holds true for poems, like this one:
Reasons You Find a Wheelchair in the Dumpster
by Bill Campana
someone has decided
it wasn’t fast enough
someone is being very cruel
I know, right? Pretty awesome and quick, like a little switchblade of poetry.
3) Poetry knows what you like.
It’s not all about nature. Hate your job? So do poets! Try this one on for size the next time you’re hung over and don’t want to get out of bed.
Telephone Booth Number 905 ½
woke up this morning
Tell me Pietri doesn’t understand your troubles. There is video of him doing this floating around the web as well. Check it out.
4) Poetry isn’t setting out to bore you.
I know a lot of poetry seems like it’s going out of its way to be boring (as opposed to inaccessible, which may be true of some poetry, but that’s a different point for a different column). There are lots of reasons why you might think a poem is boring, but most of time it’s not actually boring…you just need to know a little more about what it’s trying to accomplish. Some poems are like mysteries or puzzles, but those aren’t the ones I’m talking about. I’m talking about the poetic equivalent of, say, Donnie Darko: oh, but if only the director had left in some of the special features footage I would have GOT IT. So here is one that is an awesome poem that, at first glance, might come off a little “off”, maybe even schizophrenic, until you know…well, I’ll just let you read it and then we’ll talk in a minute.
“After Experience Taught Me …”
After experience taught me that all the ordinary
I’m going to show you something very
Ugly: someday, it might save your life.
Seeing that none of the things I feared contain
What if you get caught without a knife;
Nothing—even a loop of piano wire;
Excepting only in the effect they had
Take the first two fingers of this hand;
Fork them out—kind of a “V for Victory”—
Whether there might be something whose discovery
And jam them into the eyes of your enemy.
You have to do this hard. Very hard. Then press
No virtue can be thought to have priority
Both fingers down around the cheekbone
And setting your foot high into the chest
No man can desire to act rightly, to be blessed,
You must call up every strength you own
And you can rip off the whole facial mask.
Wishing to be, to act, to live. He must ask
And you, whiner, who wastes your time
Dawdling over the remorseless earth,
What evil, what unspeakable crime
Have you made your life worth?
If it wasn’t clear, Snodgrass isn’t indenting just to be “poetic.” *
Each of these stanzas alternates between two voices, and the last 4-line stanza is a third, conclusive voice. Now, Snodgrass could have made it more obvious, say with quotation marks on some stanzas. However, if you read a lot of poetry you might ascertain what’s happening without extra stuff, so it kind of works for multiple levels of audience in that way. However, if you didn’t know that the even stanzas were the voice of a drill instructor you might not glean the multiple voice device here. Once you realize that there are multiple voices it kind of makes more sense and lets you read more into it. If you really want a treat, listen to Snodgrass perform this poem. He was one of the most engaging readers of the academic set, and he really brings a lot of life to his work when he performs them. Here is audio of it:http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171513
5) Poetry can be downright fun.
The fun in poetry didn’t stop with Shel Silverstein. Check out this piece by Kevin Young and see if you don’t crack a smile. For extra kicks, read it out loud.
Baby, give me just
We must lake it fast
I want to cold you
& never get lo
I live you so much
Baby, jive me gust
Can we hock each other
All light wrong?
Baby give me just
My won & homely
You wake me meek
Mill you larry me?
Baby, hive me just
With this sing
Come on: you can scarcely read it with a straight face.
In conclusion, I hope that this meager smattering of poems gives you, the uninitiated, some idea of what’s to be had out there in the big bad world of poetry. I’m sorry to say that poets and poetry critics do not always make it easy for you to get with the program. Some of them like it that way.
But this isn’t about those guys. This is about you – the person who doesn’t know if they like poetry, or thought they didn’t until they read one of the five I presented here – and it is my fervent hope that you found some merit here because, left to the devices of many poets and critics, poetry is doomed.
* – This poem is not as perfectly indented as it is in print. I had to mess with it to get what I got, but you get the idea. If you want to see it perfectly indented, google it.