Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Poetry

As you may have noticed, I've started posting poems that I like. I have mixed feelings about poetry for several reasons. I was first introduced to it by an English teacher in high school who seems to have caused me to permanently revile nearly all English teachers, English majors and English departments. This teacher adopted annoying English affectations, though he was from Ohio. To make matters worse, my freshman roommate in college was an English major from Michigan who also adopted annoying English affectations. He once presented me with a poem that he had hand written on a piece of birch bark. By the end of my freshman year I was ready to become a serial killer of English majors.

There were other problems that I had with poetry. I often felt that there was no point to its ambiguity, and when it wasn't ambiguous it often struck me as uninteresting. Although my reading skills have improved since high school, I tend to react to poetry the same way that I used to. If a poem expresses an idea, it can usually be expressed more clearly in prose. If it expresses an observation, the same can be done in prose. I consider the concept of prose poetry an oxymoron. For me, poetry works best as an artistic formulation that combines language, perceptions, ideas and emotions in a way that can't be done well in prose, but sometimes can in fiction. There is some overlap between poetry and fiction, depending on the writing style of the author. This leaves a very narrow range for poetry, and in order to bother reading it at all I feel that it has to be of unusually high quality. The finer points of good poetry seem ineffable to me, and I doubt that they can be taught. In this regard I lump poetry in with fiction and dismiss the value of writing programs.

During my fiction-reading period that started in the late 1980's, I also delved into poetry somewhat. I read a couple of anthologies and found little to like. The first poet who struck me as good was Denise Levertov. However, after reading several volumes of her poems, I decided that I only liked a handful. I also liked Emily Dickinson's oddness and consider her a genuine poetic genius, if there is such a thing. But even in her case most of her poems are duds in my opinion. There was part of the poem "Come, Words, Away" by Laura Riding that intrigued me for some time, but I don't think her work holds up well. Years ago I read some Shelley and Rilke (it was recited at my wedding in 1974) and thought they were good, but I don't think they're as good as Levertov or Dickinson. After moving to Vermont I read most of Robert Frost's poems, a couple of which were familiar from high school, and though I liked two or three of them, I think he was essentially a linguistically awkward poet who could have said almost everything better in prose if he knew how to write.

This last comment on Frost ties in with a lot of what I think is wrong with contemporary poetry. The impetus behind writing poetry is the desire for self-expression. Especially now that formal structure is unnecessary in poems, every Tom, Dick and Harry (or Megan, Caitlin and Heather), regardless of their knowledge or skill, can write a poem and be praised for it. While it might be possible to pick out amateur poems from a collection that also included poems written by major contemporary poets, I think the standards are low, and the published poets may in many cases simply be lucky or have out-marketed their competition. Although I can't be counted among the cognoscenti of poetry, I often find what is expressed in the poems of leading poets to be of little or no significance or interest. They frequently pick pedestrian subjects and seem unperceptive to me. On rereading "Daddy," Sylvia Plath's most famous poem, though I acknowledge that she exhibits some skill there, the poem is essentially a childish rant that probably doesn't do her father justice at all. I'd rather not hear from angry brats.

My theory is that there is a certain amount of serendipity involved in creating a good poem. It may not be possible for many poets to write five good poems in a lifetime. In a way a poet is like an op-ed columnist who has to crank out something new each week, and there isn't enough happening in their total environment for this to work consistently. I think everything worked when Denise Levertov wrote "Living," but that that was not a common occurrence in her life. I won't go into detail describing what works in that poem, because it would feel like a desecration to me.

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