Monday, December 15, 2014

Poetry Moratorium

I seem to have reached an impasse in my current foray into poetry. During this round I've been looking at American poems, reading The Oxford Book of American Poetry, edited by David Lehman. My last stab was in 1996, when I read A Book of Luminous Things, edited by Czeslaw Milosz. The Milosz anthology is of extremely high quality and has a much broader selection in terms of geography and time, though it is much shorter. I recommend Milosz if, like me, you want to wet your toes a little.

The problem that I encounter is that I don't like most poems. As the poet William Matthews (1942-1997) somewhat cynically put it, there are four main themes in published poems:

1. I went out into the woods today and it made me feel, you know, sort of religious.
2. We're not getting any younger.
3. It sure is cold and lonely (a) without you, honey, or (b) with you, honey.
4. Sadness seems but the other side of the coin of happiness, and vice versa, and in any case the coin is too soon spent and on we know not what.

The poems that I've been reading aren't quite this formulaic, but I find that even when I like a poet initially, his or her poems become tiresome quickly. Of the four categories listed, I prefer the first, but it is hard to write a poem in that theme that isn't trite or reminiscent of other poems. My favorite poems tend to invoke something of the mystery of life, and this, unfortunately, seems to be almost absent from American poetry. Another thing that I like in poems, not mentioned by Matthews, is acute perception, and I find that very, very few writers of any sort have it. Poets are far more likely to write about how they feel about something or other than notice anything of interest outside of themselves. Then if they do notice something, they tend to transform it into a poetic gimmick rather than a real insight.

As in the case of literary fiction, academia tends to monopolize and ruin poetry. In 1995 I read Soul Says, by Helen Vendler, the Harvard professor. The book is academic hagiography advocating Jorie Graham, a poet whom I can't stand to read and who now is also a professor at Harvard. Moreover, I was a little surprised to see that some recognized poets themselves disparage academia. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan said "I have always understood myself to be a person who does not go to writers conferences. It's been a point of honor: the whole cooperative workshopping thing, not for me. I have never taken a creative writing class, I have never taught a creative writing class, and I have never gone, and will never go, to anything like AWP [the Association of Writers & Writing Programs], I have often said." The poet Tom Clark (born 1941) was unimpressed by contemporary academic poets when he graduated from college, and he later rejected an opportunity to become "a university poet...thus irrevocably exiting, with a headstrong lack of foresight surely to be regretted, the moving staircase of academic poetry-careering." I sympathize with independent-minded poets and their poems appeal to me more than those written by others.

The impression I get from reading poems and about poets is that most of them just like writing poems and have made lifelong habits of it. It would come as no surprise to me if unread poetry troves of quality equal to the best published poems were to be found suddenly, just as in the case of Vivian Maier's photographs. Emily Dickinson herself had very few poems published during her lifetime, and although as she recedes into the distant past her context is becoming increasingly obscure, she still stands out as one of America's best poets.

I will continue to read poems, but at a slower pace. This means that the Poem of the Day may hardly ever be posted again, because I find the pickings so slim. I suppose that if I wanted to find more poems that I like, I would have to write them myself.

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