NOTE: This is, of course, my opinion. If you don’t share it, hooray! It makes our time together more interesting.
My attitude about poetry has shifted over time. At first, I read and wrote nothing but poetry. Then I fell away from poetry and had a lot of scorn for it. Now, I’m slowly coming back around.
With some major caveats.
Poetry is fiendishly difficult to define, much less assign value to. It’s like the definition of pornography to the Supreme Court: you know it when you see it. There is also something about bad poetry that is like failed comedy. It’s like a loud, discordant note. It touches a sore spot in your teeth. It’s that uncomfortable.
And poets have only themselves to blame. Modern poetry has painted itself into a corner. No rules means there are no rules to be broken. This makes everything uniformly unspectacular. If there was a world of nothing but superheroes, flying would be as boring as an elevator ride.
Poetry has shed its rules in the 20th and 21st century. In a world of no rules, the only way to be a rebel is to make up rules and follow them assiduously.
But poetry is not necessarily rebellion. It is particularly not rebellion for rebellion’s sake. Poetry should exist outside of time, and rebellion is usually all too temporary.
Poetry serves two functions: the control of language, and highlighting a universal truth that was not suspected by the audience.
The Control of Language
Poetry should be a precise art form. There’s no time to dilly-dally in it. It calls for precision and a careful choice of phrasing because you only have so long to get your point across.
In classical arabic poetry, there is something called “kindling.” Kindling is a long series of descriptions placed before the meat of the poem. For instance, you get line after line about how green the trees in the grove are, what the water looks like in the pond, how the fountain gurgles, etc., before you actually get to the whole reason why the poem was written in the first place.
In modern English poetry, kindling has expanded to make up the whole of the poem. Yes, we get that the leaves are leafy, the water watery, and fountains fountaining. But is that a poem or a writing exercise? Because a writing exercise has a point.
Control of language doesn’t mean being very canny about descriptions. It means careful and expressive *original* phrases. No cliches. Poetry almost by definition must locate a reader in space, yet not in time. Location in space means describing the five or seven or however many senses. But again, the control of language means that every word has its reason for being there. Poetry must be economical.
So beware of “kindling.” Don’t poop out some clever description and call it a day. It may be clever, but it’s not a good poem.
Writing about a general universal truth is not enough. “Most people think most baby animals are adorable” is not a universal truth that needs to be pointed out. Specifically, there are things that everyone goes through where they think they are the only ones to feel this way.
For instance, people generally assume that everyone else is happier and more mature than they are. Most people are completely unaware that almost everyone feels this way.
I am certainly not saying “write a poem about that,” but certainly find the universality in something.
The trend for any number of decades is to write poems on how you’re “feeling.” Raw emotion is universal and well understood. Everyone knows that everyone feels mad occasionally, or bad occasionally, or dangerous to know occasionally. It’s universal and also obvious.
The fact is we readers are selfish. Our central demand when we crack open a book of any type is “entertain me!” If it is not entertaining, we don’t just judge the book; we judge the author. People not only judge a book by its cover; they judge it by its font. We are a judgy audience.
So don’t talk to me about your feels. Talk to me about how your feels pertains to me.
I think that poems that address the author’s feelings alone as masturbatory. They are written by the author as some sort of sharp release. They make good journal entries, but fail to ring in with another reader. Although writing poems can be therapeutic, poetry is not therapy. Writing only about a personal feeling alone is emotional kindling.
All The Other Stuff
I think that constraints are also important in developing your poetic muscles. These constraints may mean forcing a certain meter or writing only in rhyme.
I am not saying that is what makes up poetry. But poetry is a play in language. In order to play, you must learn to move first. A vocabulary alone won’t do. You need to grab a word, look under the hood, mess around with things, and come out with a new understanding on how you can wring every ounce of meaning from that word. Then you have to learn how words fit together.
Working within constraints forces you to think creatively. Free verse poetry is all well and good, but if you really want to work as a poet, you need to learn how to play with language no matter the constraint. Constraints make you think about what words you use, which is vital to poetry. Otherwise, it’s just a sentence with janked up spacing.
Poets like Marie Ponsot and Philip Larkin usually produce a book of poetry once every ten years. Why? Because they want to make sure they are certain of what they say. Quality over quantity. They don’t have a “publish or perish” mentality. They write only exactly what they want to write, and are very careful in how they present it.
I am not saying theirs is an example to stick to. The niceness of poetry is that there is no example. You make your way through the trackless forest by yourself.
But as you make your way, reflect on how precious your poetry can be. Are you tossing them off three at a time in one day? Okay, but chances are your poetry isn’t that good. Read it over. Then read it again, then again, and so on. See how long it takes for you to get sick of the poem you created. Then put it away and approach it later.
According to Herodotus, the Persians used to make decisions twice: once while drunk and once while sober. If it seemed like a great idea in both states of mind, they acted on it. Approach your poetry like that. I am not saying you must get drunk, but to approach your poem in multiple frames of mind, then make the changes necessary.
Poetry is not meant to be easy because self-reflection, self-realization, and the approach of universals is never easy.
I’m not even going to get close to touching on why muses are usually portrayed as female, how spiritual poetry is supposed to work, or how terrible a movie “Dead Poets Society” is.
Okay, wait. I am TOTALLY going to talk about how terrible a movie “Dead Poets Society” is. It is ridiculously horrible. The poems presented in the movie would lead one to believe that all poetry ceased to be written at the beginning of the 20th century.
Also, sausage party alert! Women are only there as backdrops. And the purpose of poetry is to seduce women? I’m dropping all sorts of f-bombs in my head right now. So hetero women and gay men can’t be poets? Didn’t they tell Walt Whitman that? I mean, he’s heavily represented in the movie, and he certainly wasn’t interested in wooing women.
If you want to know what poetry is, stay away from this film. Great poetry was rarely written by the entitled. I’m exempting you, Wallace Stevens.
Poetry comes from your unexplored corners. It is the method of taking self-exploration and giving it universal meaning to your audience, and using unexpected and beautiful combinations of words to frame the presentation. It is the introduction of your soul to the cosmos, whether they are a good combination or not.
Treat it like that.