Poetry: Why and how?

In the airy heights of hubris, I thought I'd bring you a post on what makes poetry poetry.

I know, I know. Who am I to say? I will be the first to admit: Nobody. I am a big fat no one at all when it comes to poetry.

Yes, I had one poem professionally published … when I was 15 … in a Sunday school newsletter … for $5, I believe the payment was. (Woot!)

I self-published a book of my own poetry, which was a gratifying thing, but not exactly affirmation of my incredible poetic skills, you know? The reviews on it were really good … albeit from my mom and dad.

Have I tried to submit poetry and failed? No. I've been afraid. Very very afraid. Poetry is part of my soul work, and to have it rejected — I don't know if I could stand it.

So, most of what I know of good current poetry I have gleaned from two sources:

  1. A girl I worked with on a literary journal in college.
  2. Contemporary poetry that's generally acknowledged to be da bomb.

As for #1, I didn't even like that chick. She was kind of snooty and airy-fairy and artsy-fartsy and critical and way beyond her years in self-confidence and maturity, which completely intimidated me. I was supposed to be above her in paygrade, and I felt beneath her in every which way. All that was, naturally, not her fault, and she did an outstanding job being the poetry editor for the journal.

The really good thing about working with her was I got to read every comment she wrote on every poem that was submitted. She never failed to write something. And what was the most common thread? "Why is this poetry? Show — don't tell!"

As I've read some of #2 (not a lot — I feel guilty about this, but it is what it is), I see what she means.

Poets like Li-Young Lee; Billy Collins; Gwendolyn Brooks; Rita Dove; the poets linked to by Paige of Baby Dust Diaries like Sharlee Mullins Glenn (can't get enough of that one) or the beautiful poetry in Mothering like this from Cheryl Gardner — even older ones like W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot — or even older still like Gerard Manley Hopkins or Emily Dickinson, poets with a modern sensibility ahead of their time — they all inspire and elucidate and help me see what sparks the current poetry reader's interest.

Because I love even older poets, too, but there is a definite fashion to poetry, and I've noticed what's acclaimed now is more along the lines of this:

  1. Show; don't tell.
  2. If you could say it the same in prose, why don't you?

Show; don't tell

Contemporary poetry has strong imagery. It likes to take visuals, tastes, sounds — often as comparisons — and present an experience to its readers.

Does contemporary poetry have a message? Oh, undoubtedly. But it doesn't just tell you the message. It hints at it. It shows you some clues. It lets you feel the message.

Take a look at Billy Collins' poem, which both talks about and demonstrates this precept:

Introduction To Poetry
by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

The best poems make me sense something. They give me an emotional response that makes me go "Ahhh." Something in them makes sense, even if I don't have the time or inclination to dissect them line by line.

Take the lines "waterski / across the surface of a poem" — what does that even mean? Who cares! It gives you an idea, right? You get it, somewhere deep down. That's what good poetry does.

Some sniff at modern and/or contemporary poetry as being willfully obtuse. Maybe it is. Some say it's only for snobs who think they're so much smarter than everybody else. I don't know about that. I know poetry isn't everybody's cup of tea, and that's totally valid. But I think good contemporary poems are not trying to keep you from understanding them intellectually — they're just trying to bypass intellect altogether and go straight for the heart.

If you could say it the same in prose, why don't you?

In other words, why poetry? If you have an essay to write, write an essay. If you want to write a novel, write a novel. Don't make a poem carry more weight than it can. Don't try to cram every detail or fact into a poem. It's a fragile frame and easily weighed down. Poetry is more than prose with a lot of choppy line breaks. It's its own art form, and usually? It's pretty short.

Now, again — note that this is contemporary poetry I'm talking about. Homer, for instance, used poetry just like a novel. And there are plenty of more recent poets who've written long, epic verse.

It's just — well, it's not popular right now. It goes back to that in-fashion thing. Poems right now are considered best when they're brief. Take a look at magazines that (still) accept poetry submissions — they'll often have a line limit. Take a look at poetry competitions for buses (hey, I entered once) and see how short poetry must be when it's marketed to the masses (or mass transit).

If you have a definite point you just have to say — then say it. Maybe as an essay or a blog post. With poetry? You're going to have to allow a little leeway. Let the poem shape itself. Use your imagery; weave your metaphors; bring your theme back into itself. And let the message come through subtly in the framework.

Breaking the rules?

You don't like my guidelines? You won't be the first one. Do what you will, and see if you like what comes out. You absolutely might. Poetic styles are fluid and ever-changing, and maybe you're the voice of the next generation of poets.

But take it from this (mostly unpublished) poet: I like poetry that adheres to these rules. Poke around and see if you do, too. Then go try to write some.

Photo courtesy aurelio.asiain on flickr (cc)


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