Yet another new poetry release received a standing ovation and the poet is heralded as the “voice of a generation.” The book’s rear panel is lavished with ecstatic praise that suggests only a complete imbecile would pass it over. Readers today are expected to gobble up whatever is set before them and smile contentedly, even if they just went through verse after verse of opaque metaphor and absurd simile. The poems said pretty much nothing, but did so in an elegant way, landing them firmly in the 811 Dewey Decimal classification. These are poems that have come down through the proper channels; university MFA programs that teach the poet the proper application of polish to verse. It’s also why poets depend upon fellowships, grants, tenure, and sugar mamas instead of book royalties to pay their bills.
After Amanda Gorman recited her poetry at the Presidential inauguration, complete with an expensive suit of clothes and hand gestures, her book sales took off. Some weeks later she stated in an interview that she still feels like an outsider. There’s nothing more “insider” than reading at a Presidential inauguration, so why would she say such a ridiculous thing? Being an outsider has a certain cachet, like a coveted title. Gorman’s poems say what is expected to be said, things that are safe and do not ruffle any feathers (even while they pretend to do so). The struggles she faces while dressed in designer clothes and responding to invitations from the President to read her poems are very different from the struggles faced by a homeless teen runaway that doesn’t even have a pair of socks or underwear. It’s not just the difficulty of reading abstract poetry that keeps it from mainstream acceptance and success, it’s also the fakery. No amount of metaphor and clever simile can cover up the words of a safe and secure person claiming that they live a life of strife and danger.
But this does not stop the poets from slathering on the camouflage and concealment not only to present a certain image, but to cover up that they really have nothing to say at all.
Autumn resumes the land, ruffles the woods with smoky wings, entangles them. Trees shine out from their leaves, rocks mildew to moss-green; the avenues are spread with brittle floods. -from "An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England" by Geoffrey Hill.
There is any number of poems about seasons, trees, or rocks that could be used as an example here for what is deemed to be “poetic.” This is a good one because wings are not smoky and floods are not brittle, but that’s exactly what makes this a poem—or what a poem is “supposed” to be. These are the types of poems that earn their writer a Pulitzer, a pat on the head, and finally a trip to the cemetery of obscurity. Nature poems are every bit as cliche as the pulp fiction private detective alone in his shabby New York City office at midnight swigging down glasses of bourbon and grousing about the dame who just hired him to find out who really murdered her husband, but you’ll never see this poem satirized as cliche because it’s high art (or what passes for high art).
“The existing order is complete before the new work arrives,” wrote T.S. Eliot in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The romanticism period was marked by nature and spirituality, modernism by the urbanization and industrialization of post WW I, and then postmodernism, which was marked by multiple meanings or no meaning at all. The period we’re in now, whatever it is (or will be) called, will likely be marked by poems bullying readers into compassion and tolerance. From the poems of yesterday written with a feather quill to the poems of today composed on a Samsung Galaxy, Eliot’s “order” must be completed by sanctioned poets before we can move forward. Or does it?
Poetry would have a much greater acceptance if it didn’t try to play tricks. If a poet wants to bring about the full force of language, one sure way not to do it is to lock the poem up in form and/or meter. Instead of confining the beast within the cages of pentameter or villanelle, let it loose to ravage the countryside and burn the cities. There have, however, been some writers that do have the poetic firepower to bring out a masterpiece within poetic form; Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle “One Art” being a good example. Another would be the rhyming quatrains of Emily Dickinson, and it’s frankly embarrassing watching the poets of today try to clear the bar she set so high all those years ago. But these are exceptions, not the rule. Poetry should say what it wants to say, not try to bedazzle the world with poetic form. Some claim poetry is not for the many but for the few. But so are company profits and city councils.
In his 1961 essay “Essay on the Recent History of Immortality,” Robert Vaughan complains that prose is sneaking into poetry. That was over 60 years ago and similar complaints are still being made today. Prose is not sneaking in, but a few renegade writers have tried to wipe away the opaqueness and abstractness that is required of a written piece before it can be called a poem. Poems are derided by academic critics as “accessible” if they have been rid of this MFA shimmer. It isn’t rhyme and meter that make up poetry’s DNA, it’s words and phrases.
Finally we look at each other and laugh. She laughs a church of chocolate bubbles. I laugh a quail flushed out of a possum-bellied moon. -from "Driving Josie to McDonald's to Work" by Mather Schneider.
Here’s a perfect example of being poetic and being accessible—knocking one out of the park so to say. A poem doesn’t have to be one or the other. A poet should write his or her own way and leave law and ordinance to the legislators. Poems do not have to be immune to reading.
Poetry doesn’t have to be popular, and probably shouldn’t be. A reader who wants a little more from literature will find their way to poetry just like someone who wants a little more from music may work their way from Justin Timberlake to Philip Glass. Poetry shows what language can do without all the bells, whistles, and flash. A poem can evoke thought in the reader or it may simply delight the reader (preferably both). One can live a full life without poetry—or operas, or paintings, etc., but most people enjoy art in one form or another. People could live without Dancing With the Stars, too, but more people live without Leaves of Grass.
The outsiders, the guerrillas, the insurgents—these will be the ones to move poetry forward and away from the learned rules passed down. For decades now poetry has been the How are you doing? I’m fine lie of the expected call and response. We open a new book of poetry hoping for some new fire, some new shake-up, but all we get is I’m fine. The verses came from a university classroom where instead of learning to throw literary Molotov cocktails, the poets-in-training learn to ululate over jejune ‘crises’ of gender, class, and global warming. The gates that guard the castle are triple-reinforced, armored, and booby-trapped. It’s damn near impossible for the outsiders, guerrillas, and insurgents to break through. If there were only a Don King to come to the rescue.