Friday, March 9, 2012

A Plug For Poetry


I got looks today from the kids at school when I mentioned that I read poetry for fun. They couldn't imagine it even from someone as odd as they think I am. It's not so different when I mention it to adults. The general reaction is summed up in one word: Why?

I am typing this in bed looking at the two shelves that hold my poetry collection. There are seventy-four books there and two more downstairs. I have eight anthologies and then books by thirty-five authors. Very few of these are what I would call academic texts and even those that fall in that category are pretty accessible.

When I read poetry I listen for authors who write conversationally. In graduate school I did my thesis on E.B. White's writing which is elegant and conversational. He sounds like he's speaking to me. I like that. I aspire to it. And I want to hear that kind of voice in poetry. I want someone to speak to me, not down to me.

Most of what keeps people away from poetry is the sense that it is highbrow. It's what we English teachers have tended to teach, that poetry is like a locked box that can be opened only by a teacher, that it is like scripture, which is to say that it is not for ordinary mortals to understand on their own.

To that I say, rubbish. Good poetry for me isn't simple, but it is very often plain. Listen to Robert Bly:

Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter
It is a cold and snowy night. The main street is deserted. 
The only things moving are swirls of snow. 
As I lift the mailbox door, I feel its cold iron. 
There is a privacy I love in this snowy night. 
Driving around, I will waste more time. 

Nothing could be plainer and, if a reader wishes, nothing could be simpler. Bly's poem works for me at just about any level. When I "teach" this poem to students, I ask them to read it out loud a couple times and then, since I usually time it with a good snow storm, ask them to write a piece in which they use weather, an empty landscape, and the idea of "wasting" more time. Composing their own words opens the poem for them much in the same way I imagine painting opens up the world of the museum.

Other poems sound more mysterious. Listen to Mark Strand:

Mother and Son
The son enters the mother's room
and stands by the bed where the mother lies.
The son believes that she wants to tell him
what he longs to hear--that he is her boy,
always her boy. The son leans down to kiss
the mother's lips, but her lips are col. 
The burial of feelings has begun. The son
touches the mother's hands one last time,
then turns and sees the moon's full face. 
An ashen light falls across the floor.
If the moon could speak, what would it say?
If the moon could speak, it would say nothing?

That ending kills me. I can stay in it all day. I often look at the moon and wonder why it won't say anything. There is nothing but beauty in Strand's piece.

Beyond beauty and the sound of it, poetry is also the retreat of the busy man. I would love to read Anna Karina, but I'm a slow reader and getting through it would take a long time. But I can get through a poem in moments. Reading a poem is the literary equivalent of looking at a snapshot.

Like snapshots, there are some poems I like and others which don't speak to me at all. I recently grabbed an issue of a literary journal I've been thinking of submitting poetry to. If this issue is any indication, I shouldn't bother. I've read six of the thirteen poems and none come close to appealing to me. Each reminds me of why others don't read poetry: they are dense and fragmented. None sound like someone I want talking to me. They are a cross between the guy outside Starbucks who speaks only in broken sentences and a street preacher shouting about the errors of my ways.

Poetry isn't all like that. It isn't like what your English teacher forced on you. And it's not complicated. Grab a  Billy Collins book. He's good. He's funny and as readable as can be. Or, if you feel daring, read my prose poems, poetry disguised in the familiar garb of paragraphs with commas, periods and words from margin to margin.

Poetry. Good for your soul and it just sounds good.

Write on.