Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Why Are People Afraid of Poetry?

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?”


Anonymous said...

Just a thought on poetry. Many courses teach poetry which was written over a century ago. That is fine but our language has changed and that could be the reason for the lack of understanding. I don't know how you feel about Billy Collins but I love his book 'Sailing Along Around the Room' because it is so real in my life. Just a thought. Keep on teaching!

Frances, said...

Hi Benjamin, I would love to sit in your class daily, no grades please, and just listen to you expound. I have found that age has a great power of forcing us to slow down, and then having the mindset to study things in depth, whether a set of words, cloud formations or the petals of a flower. The very young start out that way too, then life speeds up and you partly lose that slowness, but it will return, just later in life.

Anonymous said...

Hi Benjamin! I'm a lifelong poet (since age 2, anyway), and I've always believed that people grew up hating poetry because of the awful, dog-trot poetry with the heavy-handed rhymes they were taught in elementary school. (Da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA, heavy blatant rhyme/etc.) Who could blame them? And your other reason, the self-absorption that holds so many poets in an iron grip, is as much of a turn-off to adult readers. It's the poetic equivalent of being willing to do literally anything to get a five-second spot on reality TV. Shame on them!!! Anyway, I was raised on Yeats and Hopkins and Eliot and Dylan Thomas from the cradle by a poetry-loving mother, and I'm convinced that a good poem "works" because it speaks to its listeners or readers and causes them to look at something in a new way. (I'm a huge fan of lyric poetry, and believe that poems should always be read aloud so their music can be heard.) People believe that poetry is "hard," effete, elitist, beyond them. But I've stealth-taught poetry in writers' workshops, and while the participants clearly felt betrayed when I informed them that yes, they were going to write a poem, to see their faces at the end of the workshop, when they saw what they had done, was poetry itself. So don't give up!

Mr. McGregor's Daughter said...

I find the best contemporary poetry in song lyrics (think almost anything by Jim Morrison, or the astute political & social commentary of Elvis Costello, the angst of Morrisey, or the politcal critques of Green Day). Historically, poetry was sung.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Layanee--I think that's the trick; finding a book that is "real in your life." That takes time, and is it worth it? I think so. One of the problems is there are so many poems and poetry books out there! I can't keep up, and don't try that hard either.
Frances--You can't sit in and NOT be graded! No way.
OFB--I love moments like that in teaching poetry, just as you decribed. Obviously the lyric is good, and strongly entrenched in the tradition, but it's become too malleable and facile. IT doesn't challenge a writer to get better, and so I teach writing in that nasty iambic pentameter; once you understand the tradition, train your ear, really HEAR the possibilites of our language, then you can write however you want--and you'll write better. It's proven. By scientists. Somewhere.
MMD--Ah, two folks talking about the oral / aural quality of poetry. Indeed, without this, poetry wouldn't even exist! I agree, we have to hear it, and we have to taste it, roll around in it, et cetera, and have it grab us in as many ways as possible. Thanks.

James Golden said...

Some people get it; some don't. More probably don't today than at any time in history. But that's an overly broad statement.

I think you're right about too much importance placed on the visual, even tyranny of the visual. TV, visual stimulus to exclusion of the other senses.

"I caught this morning, morning's minion, kingdom of daylight's dappled-dawn-drawn falcon in his riding on the rolling underneath him steady air..." - that's music. (Misquoted, I'm sure, from memory.)

Anonymous said...

I think that people often jump to the conclusion that a poem either (1) won't be something they understand or (2) frivilous - when in reality many poems are about pretty fundamental stuff. Before my lab's weekly meeting, the lab's tech reads a poem - and it's been really fascinating to watch my groups appreciation of poetry grow as their exposure to poems grows. I can see some students lean towards stream-of-consciousness stuff, others to more structured work - and I was quite proud when about a year ago, the state's poet laureate did a reading and the entire lab attended - a bunch of genomics lab rats - and when the poet was introduced, the introduction rambled on about a number of different poets and I could see recognition on the faces of my students who by day play with DNA. I don't know, but I can't help but think that the same creative thought processes that drive a poet to write or for someone to appreciate poetry won't concurrently help a scientist approach his or her science in a more interesting manner.

The music comment was interesting - I guess I've always looked at one's appreciation of music to be similar to one's appreciation of poetry. Exposure is important - perhaps more so than understanding.

I'm rambling.

Anonymous said...

Great comments. I agree with James Golden - you either "get" poetry, or you don't. Some people love music, others don't appreciate it so much. Same for poetry. I don't know if it has anything to do with how we are taught. Maybe it has more to do with how we "see" (or hear). Just like beautiful music moves my soul, something tongue-in-cheek like John Denver's "Forest Lawn" makes me smile and thank the Man Upstairs for giving us music. Same thing with poetry. I don't love all of it, but a well-turned word is a beautiful thing. Just don't expect me to give up my doggerel, because I won't. I like that, too.

Benjamin Vogt said...

James--Maybe that's partly why I garden--to smell and feel things, in conjunction and balance with what I see. We need balance.
Pam--Ramble on. "I can't help but think that the same creative thought processes that drive a poet to write or for someone to appreciate poetry won't concurrently help a scientist approach his or her science in a more interesting manner." Oh my, really? I can't believe I'm naive, being and English teacher and writer, but... really? This seems sad. Actually, it just seems wrong. I'm actually hoping this was a typo on your part, was it? Please say so. But not more interesting? What abou tliving a life more deeply? With more perpective?
Kim--Yes, maybe it IS with how we see and hear. That could certainly be part of it; but then I'd say, aren't we also trained significantly to see or hear a certain way from birth? Or before? On a Frasier rerun last night Niles tried putting a speaker on his wife's belly so their unborn child could hear classical music and be smarter / mor arts aware. A pipe dream?

Anonymous said...

Yep. Typo. But come on now, what if it wasn't? You need to reach us heathenistic (I don't think that's a word) science-types.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Pam--Scientists are heathens, but I'm (I think) as much that as muse-inspired "poet." Great poetry transcends all people, or, hits all people equally. You seem to like some poetry.... It must do something for your heathensiticness.