What is there not to get? I often hear the expressions I don’t like poetry/I’m not a fan of poems /I don’t care much for poetry from English majors, and people who consider themselves fans of literature (blasphemy to my ears). It is seldom, or actually never the case where I hear someone say they don’t like or get fiction. I’ve heard people talk about not understanding a story, but never the whole category of fiction. I can’t really blame anyone for not “getting” or “liking” poetry when the epitome of poetry is someone like Emily Dickinson, or even Shakespeare. Not to bash Dickinson because she is imaginative , her themes and metaphors are extremely complex and interesting, but to be honest out of several hundred of her poems only about twenty (okay maybe 90) will make sense to the average reader, and out of those twenty (90) I like about five (2) of them. Although I consider myself a devout poet (keep in mind not a good, but a devout poet) there are some poems out there that make me cringe and wonder why the hell they’re even considered anything. One of these poems is Edward Taylor’s “Upon a Spider Catching a Fly”.
Thou sorrow, venom Elfe:
Is this thy play,
To spin a web out of thyselfe
To Catch a Fly?
I saw a pettish wasp
Fall foule therein:
Whom yet thy Whorle pins did not clasp
Lest he should fling
But as affraid, remote
Didst stand hereat,
And with thy little fingers stroke
And gently tap
Thus gently him didst treate
Lest he should pet,
And in a froppish, aspish heate
Should greatly fret
Whereas the silly Fly,
Caught by its leg
Thou by the throate tookst hastily
And ‘hinde the head
This goes to pot, that not
Nature doth call.
Strive not above what strength hath got,
Lest in the brawle
This Frey seems thus to us.
Hells Spider gets
His intrails spun to whip Cords thus
And wove to nets
To tangle Adams race
To their Destructions, spoil’d, made base
By venom things,
But mighty, Gracious Lord
Thy Grace to breake the Cord, afford
Us Glorys Gate
We’l Nightingaile sing like
When pearcht on high
In Glories Cage, thy glory, bright,
If you don’t want to keep reading my post after reading that, I don’t blame you. If you tell me that you completely understood it on the first try, stop lying to me and to yourself. What is it about this poem that I hate? Well, everything! I believe poetry should use precise language. I learned this from one of my favorite authors, Raymond Carver and in his words I will say that
“It’s possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring—with immense, even startling power…..If the words are heavy with the writer’s own unbridled emotions, or if they are imprecise and inaccurate for some other reason — if the words are in any way blurred — the reader’s eyes will slide right over them and nothing will be achieved. The reader’s own artistic sense will simply not be engaged.”
Ambiguity is not what I look at art for, unless there is a purpose for that ambiguity, so in the words of internet trolls, poets please stahp it. Although I don’t really like Dickinson, I am a huge Shakespeare fan; to me he did not write plays but rather really really really really long poems. I do understand that he is not everyone’s cup of tea. His experimentation with syntax of language is something you’d have to get used to, or just simply get. However, poetry is as much about content as it is about form and not even a Shakespeare hater can deny his form is genius. I often hear poets (yes I do talk to people every now and then) complain about giving poetry a form, it is “restricting” or makes poems sound “forced”, well it can also be extremely guiding (you just suck as a poet) . The sonnet (aside from the damn villanelle) is one of the most complex poetry forms to follow. There are also different types of sonnets the English sonnet (guess who that is modeled after), the Italian sonnet and the Spenserian sonnet (named after Edmund Spenser -_- who I really dislike). That being said, although Shakespeare mastered (created) the sonnet and other old timers did as well, two of my favorite sonnets have been written by Harlem Renaissance poets. I wanted to share these sonnets because they are the epitome of precise and commonplace language, yet manage to be poetic, beautiful, haunting (you can really do a lot when you’re really talented) and follow a very strict form. The first one is a sonnet by Claude McKay.
The Harlem Dancer by Claude McKay
Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes
And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway;
Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes
Blown by black players upon a picnic day.
She sang and danced on gracefully and calm,
The light gauze hanging loose about her form;
To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm
Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.
Upon her swarthy neck black, shiny curls
Profusely fell; and, tossing coins in praise,
The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls,
Devoured her with their eager, passionate gaze;
But, looking at her falsely-smiling face
I knew her self was not in that strange place.
Now go try writing a line in iambic pentameter that sounds half as good as any of these, then come back and tell me you don’t like poetry (also iambic pentameter closely resembles the pattern of the human heartbeat, isn’t that romantic?). The other sonnet I wanted to share is called The Rites for Cousin Vit by Gwendolyn Brooks.
The Rites for Cousin Vit by Gwendolyn Brooks
Carried her unprotesting out the door
Kicked back the casket-stand. But it can’t hold her,
That stuff and satin aiming to enfold her,
The lid’s contrition nor the bolts before.
Oh oh. Too much. Too much. Even now, surmise,
She rises in sunshine. There she goes
Back to the bars she knew and the repose
In love-rooms and the things in people’s eyes.
Too vital and too squeaking. Must emerge.
Even now, she does the snake-hips with a hiss,
Slaps the bad wine across her shantung, talks
Of pregnancy, guitars and bridgework, walks
In parks or alleys, comes haply on the verge
Of happiness, haply hysterics. Is.
If I could live a life again and chose who to be, I would reincarnate as either Mark Twain or Robert Frost (I want to be an adorable old man on 10c stamps). I am not a fan of rhyming schemes in poems because I often feel the rhyming pattern distracts me from what I am actually reading, but when you are as talented as Robert Frost you can rhyme every word in a poem and I wouldn’t be distracted from what is being said. Robert Frost can do anything he wants, like write an amazing poem in nine lines.
Fire and Ice by Robert Frost
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Although all these Authors are ancient, there are still some amazing poets out there. To be fair, when used correctly ambiguity, mystery and even superfluous language can create some amazing thought provoking poems. By correctly I mean someone like Sylvia Plath, who is also one of my favorite poets (not to mention gorgeous and so much more talented than her husband), and I find her to be ambiguous, but with a purpose. I don’t mean to spam this post with poems (I do) but I will.
The Dead by Sylvia Plath
“Revolving in oval loops of solar speed,
Couched in cauls of clay as in holy robes,
Dead men render love and war no heed,
Lulled in the ample womb of the full-tilt globe.
No spiritual Caesars are these dead;
They want no proud paternal kingdom come;
And when at last they blunder into bed
World-wrecked, they seek only oblivion.
Rolled round with goodly loam and cradled deep,
These bone shanks will not wake immaculate
To trumpet-toppling dawn of doomstruck day :
They loll forever in colossal sleep;
Nor can God’s stern, shocked angels cry them up
From their fond, final, infamous decay.”
Now go make sense of that. This is what I would consider a slow poem, one you really have to pay attention to every word to make sense out of it in relation to the next word, and when you get it, it is extremely beautiful and melancholic. Although I mostly lean towards precise and simple yet complicated poems, (i.e Langston Hughes) I do like a dash of superfluous words every here and there. They can be that cherry on the top. I also believe that this not only applies to poetry, but to short stories, novels and any sort of literature as well. I’ve been going through a lot of internet literary magazines and print magazines and looking at what poetry they’re publishing, and to be honest most of it is awful and lazy and it makes me wonder if poetry is really dead, not because of the lack of fans but because of the lack of good poets. To stop mentioning dead people I will bring up “Sticks” by George Saunders who has recently become this superstar writer, and with good reason. When I first read this I was not sure if it was a poem or a short story, take a guess, but overall it follows exactly what Carver was talking about and I hope that one day I will be able to take an image and turn it into something like this.
by George Saunders
Every year Thanksgiving night we flocked out behind Dad as he dragged the Santa suit to the road and draped it over a kind of crucifix he’d built out of metal pole in the yard. Super Bowl week the pole was dressed in a jersey and Rod’s helmet and Rod had to clear it with Dad if he wanted to take the helmet off. On the Fourth of July the pole was Uncle Sam, on Veteran’s Day a soldier, on Halloween a ghost. The pole was Dad’s only concession to glee. We were allowed a single Crayola from the box at a time. One Christmas Eve he shrieked at Kimmie for wasting an apple slice. He hovered over us as we poured ketchup saying: good enough good enough good enough. Birthday parties consisted of cupcakes, no ice cream. The first time I brought a date over she said: what’s with your dad and that pole? and I sat there blinking.
We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us. Dad began dressing the pole with more complexity and less discernible logic. He draped some kind of fur over it on Groundhog Day and lugged out a floodlight to ensure a shadow. When an earthquake struck Chile he lay the pole on its side and spray painted a rift in the earth. Mom died and he dressed the pole as Death and hung from the crossbar photos of Mom as a baby. We’d stop by and find odd talismans from his youth arranged around the base: army medals, theater tickets, old sweatshirts, tubes of Mom’s makeup. One autumn he painted the pole bright yellow. He covered it with cotton swabs that winter for warmth and provided offspring by hammering in six crossed sticks around the yard. He ran lengths of string between the pole and the sticks, and taped to the string letters of apology, admissions of error, pleas for understanding, all written in a frantic hand on index cards. He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE? and then he died in the hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and the sticks and left them by the road on garbage day.
I would post an example of a superfluous and bad poem, or a bad short story but I don’t want any haters in my life, I am hoping that by posting good examples you will be able to tell what a bad poem is, and hopefully people will ignore those and look for the really good ones and I never again will have to hear I don’t “get” poetry.