Who’s Afraid of Poetry?

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Image by Flickr user: st0rmz / Creative Commons

Certain national traits reveal to all the world that we’re Americans. There’s our compulsive informality; our odd need to start off all relationships on a first-name basis; our relentless urge for self-improvement; and–though this one may not seem as obvious as the others–our profound discomfort with poetry.

You know what I mean, don’t you? Invoke the poetical muses and an ordinary American will frown, stammer something like “I don’t know much about poetry,” and break off eye contact, which my shrink tells me is a sure sign of shame. At the mention of the P word, we get a nasty sense-memory of Mrs. So-and-So forcing us to read snippets of The Song of Hiawatha in 10th grade (or if we’re younger and luckier, some Langston Hughes), followed by exercises in which we were forced to identify an iamb, an anapest, and other dull flora and fauna of the land of poetry.

And that, unless we’re attracted to a creative writing program later, is about it. We’re left with a sense that poetry is a subject rather than an art, an experience, or a source of pleasure. Our failure to master this subject–or even make a start toward “understanding” it–leaves us permanently embarrassed and confused. We have the vague sense that poetry is made up of the old and dull, which require footnotes–Chaucer and Milton and so on–and the newer but “difficult” (starting with T.S. Eliot), which can seem like a secret language. Very smart people at Yale have the key to it and “get it,” and we don’t.

Many have sought the reason for American poemophobia not just in Mrs. So-and-So’s boring poetry units, but also in the marginal status poetry has had in American culture in recent years. In 1991 poet-businessman Dana Gioia (currently head of the National Endowment for the Arts) published an essay called “Can Poetry Matter?” in The Atlantic that lambasted what he considered to be a poetry scene dominated by academic creative writing programs and tiny-circulation magazines read only by other poets. Gioia contrasted this state of affairs with the 1940s and 1950s, when modern-poetry anthologies for the general reader abounded, and general-interest intellectual journals like Partisan Review offered thoughtful reviews of new poetry. “Though supported by a loyal coterie,” he wrote, “poetry has lost the confidence that it speaks to and for the general culture.” (The magazine was swamped with replies, including, in Gioia’s words, “Hate mail . . . on the letterheads of university writing programs.”)

But times have changed. In 2003, Gioia painted a very different picture of the poetry scene. In a long essay in The Hudson Review, he celebrated the luxuriant growth of poetry outside the academy in the past 10 years or so. Rap, slam poetry, and spoken-word art are bringing new vitality to American poetry, Gioia contends, by wresting it away from print, infusing it with familiar (even ancient) elements like rhyme and a strong “beat,” and returning it to the voice, to performance, to entertainment.

Another dyed-in-the-wool American trait is the conviction, which Gioia reflects, that art can be vital only when it appeals to a majority, taking on the colors of mass culture. Anything else is elitism. But to hold this opinion, I submit, is to still be partly caught up in poetry-fear. That very fear shrinks our idea of what poetry is and should be. Does it seem “difficult” and snooty? Then the answer seems to be to make it loud, easy, bright, and fun. But poetry is both, and a lot more, too. The house of poetry has to hold Allen Ginsberg’s big, exciting, vastly entertaining Howl, the boisterous, cleverly ironic verbal antics of slamster Taylor Mali (check out his dazzling “How to Write a Political Poem” in the book-CD set The Spoken Word Revolution)–and also the breathless silence of a lyric by the great and esoteric French poet Stéphane Mallarmé and the knotted enigmas of the Holocaust-haunted Romanian-German poet Paul Celan. If the “entertainmentization” of American poetry can help us really explore the whole poetry house without fear, then it’s doing great work; if it isolates us in one of the house’s party rooms, well, we haven’t made much progress.

I’d say the same for the more literary end of the popular-poetry scene, as represented by Garrison Keillor’s regular reading of poetry on public radio’s The Writer’s Almanac (a slew of these poems have been collected in Keillor’s recent anthology Good Poems) and former Poet Laureate Billy Collins’ Poetry 180 program, with its recent book and ongoing website (www.loc.gov/poetry/180). Poetry 180 is based on the sensible idea that high school students should hear a poem a day–simply hear it, read by a teacher in class, or even by the principal during morning announcements–without having to analyze it in a term paper. The poems in these anthologies have been selected for accessibility; they are mostly short lyrics with clear and consistent settings, poems that don’t play verbal tricks; the changes they go through generally represent logical developments of clearly stated themes. In Poetry 180, Leroy V. Quintana’s “Poem for Salt” is typical:

The biggest snowstorm to hit Denver in twenty years.
What is the world to do, freed from the shackles
of the eight hours needed to earn its daily salary?

Only on a day like this does salt over-shadow gold.
Salt, with its lips of blue fire, common as gossip,
ordinary as sin. Like true love and gasoline,
missed only when they run out. Salt spilling
from a blue container a young girl is holding,
along with an umbrella, on the label of a blue
container of salt that the woman across the street,
under her umbrella is pouring behind her left rear wheel
to no avail this discontented, unbuttoned December morning

Here’s a poem that tells a clear story in a setting, and in a tone, that resemble prose fiction. (There is a modest imaginative “leap” as we compare the hapless woman with the perky Morton’s Salt girl.) Such poems offer powerful satisfactions–but so do marvelously twisted and enigmatic poems that require big leaps of imagination. And so do poems that gnaw at language like a dog worries a bone, poems that jump the track and end up being about something else entirely, poems that make almost no sense at all but dance in our ears like music. In fact, I’d suggest that these supposedly “difficult” poems offer us more of what poetry really is in itself: language breaking free of the demand to do the work of prose.

While Billy Collins’ effort to hook youngsters on poetry with poems that are easy to “get” is a sensible strategy, it’s by no means the only one. For years, Teachers and Writers Collaborative in New York (www.twc.org), following the example of the late poet Kenneth Koch, have introduced very young schoolchildren to beautifully strange poems by the likes of Spain’s great surreal lyricist Federico García Lorca, the jazz-flavored New York experimentalist Frank O’Hara, and the explosive Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Koch’s wonderful insight was that the “nonsense” of the best avant-garde poetry and the fertile wildness in a kid’s head can connect.

As long as we’re fearlessly engaging the avant-garde, here’s one of Ange Mlinko’s “Nine Dreams,” from a 1996 chapbook titled Immediate Orgy and Audit:

Blew a brown leaf in my bed as I slept.
Moves relative to
the eyeball’s tremor.
Softly boiled in a subtle change
I get up from the, in dream
greased by the oil
of a poached flower.

What are we supposed to do with this? Poetry-fear says: It’s in code. Ange Mlinko is sending a message to other smarties, excluding us. If we knew more about what stuff like this is supposed to mean, we’d get it. But we feel bored, lost, and, above all, stupid.

Now the best antidote I know for fear is love. Suppose we decide to treat Mlinko’s poem like something we at least want to love. First of all, then, we’d have to give up trying to figure it out, trying to make it be or do something other than what it is and does. We’d just experience it: just enjoy the explosive little B sounds of blew and brown and bed, and the jolly gently rocking rhythm of the line. “Moves relative to / the eyeball’s tremor” would shift our experience into a more precise realm that feels a bit scientific; we’d realize we’re still in dream territory because eyeballs do tremble in sleep. “Softly boiled” makes an unsettling and funny comparison between an egg and an eyeball (at least it does to me). “I get up from the” is interrupted by a comma, and the jerk is dreamlike; then “pleased” and “greased” get to mirror each other and we have the greasy pleasure of saying these words together. And as for “the oil / of a poached flower,” that’s just plain funny and mysterious: We feel greasy (still) and we feel the heat of poaching (instead of soft-boiling) and we see a blossom that’s no longer there. The “cooking” we’ve undergone in dream makes us happy.

I guarantee that as far as knowledge goes, you have in your ordinary grasp of English all that you need for a poem like Mlinko’s. What’s hard is to be simple and even stupid enough to enjoy it in and of itself: its sound, its beat, its strangeness, and even your confusion–they’re all part of the mix. You don’t get it? Read it again. Listen to it. Live with it. Play with it as if it were a toy. Forget about getting it intellectually the way you get a page of prose; all you can do is become more familiar with its oddness. Its oddness will seep into your nervous soul and you will glimpse the beauty of language when it’s just being itself instead of doing some nasty job of heavy lifting. And, without turning into a know-it-all or a snob, you will be on your way to permanent recovery from poetry-fear.

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