I was talking with someone today (now I've done it) about why so many folks would rather read a piece of prose--any piece of prose--over a poem. The reasoning is that it takes many reads to "get" a poem, so it's harder to engage. When I teach, even in poetry classes with poetry students, the same issues come up:
--Why don't I get this? Should I? What am I missing?
--What does the author mean?
--I know I should like this, but I don't.
--I'm pretty sure this is well written, but it's hard to know.
--This sounds beautiful, but I still don't get it.
My answer to the above is at first an angry hmph, then it's a questioning about our FAILED attempts at educating or teaching poetry, about poetry as one necessary part to living are lives more richly. Our history with reading poetry is one where we either read langauge that isn't contemporary and so alienates us, or language that is self gratifying and not an act of communication. It's masturbating. I said it. It's 98% of poetry published today. So, I'd answer the above questions with:
--If you don't get it then the poet either failed as an artist (and that's ok) and / or it's just not your cup of tea (and that's ok).
--Who cares? Move on if it doesn't click with you. Life's too short.
--No you shouldn't. Life's too short....
--It very well might be well written, it might be gorgeous language, but poetry fails because it doesn't do both essential things for a poem to be great: communicate via fresh clarity of thought and sound.
--I don't get it either. Life's too short....
Poetry fails us because it's losing out to a visual dumbing down of culture where we want immediacy and someone else to think for us (I don't get who wants to be thought for, but whatever). Instant gratification. Poetry CAN do this, but does such poetry fail? Does it become too simple? Does a simple poem ask us to still read it over and over searching for some deeper meaning, some theory? Why can't a poem be a poem, a moment of grace, a moment of focused intensity, a sublime cherry on the desert of life? I hate what I just said.
The Red Wheelbarrow (William Carlos Williams)
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
A simple poem. An elegant poem. English academics have studied this poem to death and talked out their posteriors so much that the room needs a good venting. So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow. Yes. It does. Can't you imagine having this moment in your life? Sitting somewhere, seeing a wheelbarrow, thinking this? Isn't that a wonderful moment? Isn't that just a pure and right moment where you feel connected to the world around you, richer, living your life more deeply? Isn't that enough? Isn't it MORE than enough?
I could go on, but I'm not wanting to write an essay on a blog. I am a poet. I am a poet because I notice things, write them down, and happen to do a decent job of it once and a while if I work hard. Sometimes I don't have to work hard, but that's because I've worked hard all the other times. Poetry is valuable only in as much as it communicates a moment to us and moves us on some level. If we don't click with that moment, there will be other poems, other moments--all we need is one moment, one poem, to have our perspective changed forever.
My fear is that, in a rush rush visual culture that seeks to destroy individuality and moments of solace and introspection and independent thought, will there be any moments left for poems to enliven us? Will poems that effect us matter? (Should we force poetry classes on students just to get them to settle down, focus, and have moments again? Like quiet time in preschool or recess?) As Christian Wiman says, "[...] we now live in a world that seems almost designed to eradicate the inner life. When a real poem falls on such soil, how is it supposed to take root?”