Friday, October 19, 2012

Nothing Rhymes with Poetry

I dislike poetry.

I was never able to avoid poetry growing up, much as I tried. From junior high school through my first run at college every English or Lit course had an obligatory poetry element. Pretty much against my will many of those required poems have stuck with me, not so much as influencing forces but as bits and pieces of rhyming detritus lodged in unused nooks and crannies of my frontal lobe (of which there are legion); Frost with his horse in the snowy wood, Sandburg with his cat-footed fog, Kipling keeping his wits - all the standards are in there somewhere. And of course I can recite what every teenager thinks is the heaviest piece of writing they've ever seen, the single most quoted (and practically inescapable) poem in the English language, William Butler Yeats's The Second Coming. Fragments of that poem are everywhere.

Actually, I think I should specify I dislike reading poetry. Listening to it is fine; Shakespeare's plays, the lyrics of any song, all of these are poetry. Even some ad jingles, Lord help us. They are composed of words chosen for sound and imagery that have been carefully set in a structured cadence and rhythm to create a desired effect. (And cadence is not rhythm. If a poem's in iambic pentameter, iambic is the rhythm and pentameter is the cadence.) Even blank verse – a complete mess on the page as the poet tries to use white spaces and oddly positioned words to imply grammar and relationship – sounds good when read aloud by someone who gets what the poem is about.

I think my dislike of words scattered across the page is a function of my dyslexia; b, q, d, and p are the same letter to me, identical if presented without positional clues. I spent so much time learning to figure out what I was looking at growing up that I can sight-read a find-a-word puzzle. Really. You think a word like "disenfranchise" is hard to read when spelled backwards in an ascending diagonal? That's how it looks to me half the time anyway. Being able to read upside down as quickly as I read right side up was a real boon as a classroom teacher. (Doesn't work for reading in mirrors.)

After three point five paragraphs devoted to my dislike of poetry it should come as no surprise that I have favorite poems and poets or that I have had one (count 'em, one) poem published in my lifetime. It was written during my Bohemian period, the year I took off between high school and college. It was chosen by a regional literary quarterly that paid in copies and disappeared without a ripple three and a half decades ago. In other words it was not a professional sale, but at the time I was impressed with myself.

Something times One is said
to equal Something.

In math that
is called
of Identity.

I need someOne
to times with.

Pretty much adolescent angst on a stick, I know, but I hadn't yet turned twenty and was still mistaking doubt for depth and hormones for passion. An astute student of the late Beat period may notice the work shows influence of one of the first poets I 'discovered' on my own: Richard Brautigan. (Actually, you'd have to be a very generous student with intuitive skills bordering on the clairvoyant.) For those unfamiliar with his work, I recommend you start with his novel Trout Fishing in America and/or his collection of poems The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster. One of my favorites is the title poem from the collection, here in its entirety:

When you take your pill
it's like a mine disaster.
I think of all the people
lost inside of you.

I know some, like my brother who teaches English at a real university, dismiss most of Brautigan's work as word play. I'm going to come back to that idea in a moment, but first one more poet: Billy Collins. A former USofA Poet Laureate, Collins does atypical things with words. I don't think I'll ever get tired of his delightful Tension, for example. In fact, I think you should go read that now. I’ll wait.

"Tension" looks a lot like word play, doesn't it? But yet it's still with you, and will stick with you; just like "The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster." And they'll stick with you in part because, as I said of poems earlier, they are composed of words carefully chosen, balanced, and positioned to evoke a desired effect. This effect is amplified when the choice, balance, and position are unexpected.

The myth of the dreamy-eyed poet is as stereotypically erroneous as the myth of the starving writer. Writers and poets are craftsmen (mostly because I can't bring myself to use "craftspeople" and I can't think of a gender-neutral equivalent) who work at mastering the tools of their trade then use those tools to the best of their ability. And you know what? Poets are more disciplined than writers. They use fewer words to greater effect. For this reason alone every writer should study poetry. Listen to poetry if you have as much trouble reading it as I do. Go to a poetry jam – where poets face off, building on each other's words to create a new whole, the verbal analog of jazz musicians letting loose collaboratively when the mere hearers are gone, creating what won't be repeated. Study why poetry works, the nuts and bolts and wordplay that make verse memorable. Because, while you as a writer probably never have to be as spare and structured as a poet, knowing how to use the poet's tools will make your own work stronger.


Eugenia O'Neal said...

I like poetry and believe that it's made my writing more lyrical but I don't read as much of it as I should. I love how poets can compress large ideas into very short sentences that are sometimes breathtaking in their power.

Liane Spicer said...

I love some poems and poets (Sylvia Plath, Wilfred Owen) and hate others (Walt Whitman--gag--don't stone me!). I remember The Second Coming mostly for its contribution of a fabulous title to Chinua Achebe's great novel and for its fabulous opening line that makes me dizzy every time. I used to dislike haiku but after having to write a few for a competition (which I won--primarily because it began with 'To hell with degrees' and the audience consisted of young undergrads) I'm a convert.

Next semester I'll be signing up for a poetry seminar with one Dr. Rahim, a girl I taught in high school. Will post about it when the time comes.

[I'm a writer. I'm starving. And no, you may not mention the words 'weight gain' to me.]

Liane Spicer said...

Oops, doubled up on the 'fabulous' there. Apologies.