In Defense of Poetry
Back in 2013 the Washington Post ran a commentary that asked why modern poetry is so bad. In that article, poetry was accused of being “hermetic,” “oblique,” and full of “perpetual hedging.” An article this year in the Telegraph slammed such celebrated writings as William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and poems by Shelley, Tennyson, and Wordsworth. Recently, Kristen Stewart apparently attempted to write a poem that she shared entitled “My Heart Is a Wiffle Ball” – with expected groaning.
It’s no secret. Poetry is the least enjoyed literary form and the bane of every Intro to Composition student’s existence. Nobody cares what iambic pentameter is, and most people find poetry to be cryptic, overwrought, and entirely frivolous. This year’s Pulitzer for the poetry category went to Peter Balakian’s Ozone Journal – a chapbook that covers such brutal subject matter as the Armenian genocide, divorce, and AIDS. At the time of writing this, Balakian’s chapbook has a grand total of 1 customer review on Amazon.
People don’t like poetry. Publishers reject poetry books because they don’t sell. People hear from literary wizards in ivory tower professorships that Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is the true epic pinnacle of American poetic accomplishment. If they have any curiosity and actually go pick up the book, the first page greets them with this:
One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.
Of physiology from top to toe I sing,
Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say
the Form complete is worthier far,
The Female equally with the Male I sing
What fresh hell is this? Is this intelligible to any earthly human being? What the heck is a physiognomy? The rest of the book is more than 100 pages of mish-mashed allegory, pontificating ramble, and Lincoln worship. Hardly the crisp and erudite introspection that poetry is described to be by those who love it. So what gives?
The problem, in part, is that readers expect understanding to come from the words alone, as they entirely should. But poets, more than a few at least, will write in such a tortured manner as to force their reader to consult the dictionary seven times per paragraph, a history book at least twice, and a compendium of etymologies and literary imagery about infinity times by the end of the chapbook. It does not need to be this way. And additionally, the problem here is exaggerated.
Most poetry anthologies aren’t that bad, some are superb, it’s just that the ones famous for their historical importance get blown all out of proportion by people who have the unusually specialized scholarship and breadth of liberal arts and humanities education to more plainly understand the words. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl achieves some balance – demanding some cultural literacy from the reader, but not so much that it leaves the thing entirely impenetrable to those who don’t “get” the references. Anything ever written by Maya Angelou is entirely understandable by a plain reading of the words with or without a liberal arts education.
The point is: poetry is not bad. It’s just like every other genre in the sense that the old stuff is full of antiquated and unintelligible verse, the modern stuff is prone to scholarly boorishness, and the good stuff is the simple, uncomplicated, straightforward, powerful deployment of words to affect a reader’s emotions. Perhaps a rare find, but then think – how many books in the bookstore are actually worth reading anyway? Ten percent?
Poetry is its own animal and one must learn to experience it as an entirely different method of reading. Poetry is short and clipped compared to narrative or prose form. It is an attempt to expunge all unnecessary wordiness and even some context to cut to the heart of an idea, a thought, an emotion, an experience, or an observation. Poetry is the reduction of all the background noise that you find in an essay in order to get to the gist, and to more musically and expressively consider the gist. It is a method of taking away all the dicta to get straight to the true rationale or the essence.
Part of the problem is we expect certain conventions. We expect sentences to have a beginning and an end. We expect a fully fledged noun and verb, an object and a subject. We are so entirely used to reading in the prose form that the formula for writing we are most familiar with looks lopsided and half-bare without all the padding that has comforted us and guided us in more traditional forms of writing. Learning to appreciate poetry requires some courage and willingness to abandon all that hand-holding, and to embrace a new set of rules, or worse – a place where words exist without rules.
In 1851 the famed writer of Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley, wrote an essay on the defense of poetry. His praise for the art form is instructive. He describes poetry as the expression of human imagination, and the turning of imagination into melody. He was a formal poet – who followed the strictures of verse and rhyme. The compactness and the precision of well created words can either fall flat as a an inane profundity, or become vibrant as a song, more capable of connecting with a person’s consciousness. He saw poetry as binding the author and the reader with a greater sense of empathy and morality and with more exercise, the stronger he believed those faculties could become:
A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own…Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight… Poetry strengthens the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.
Brushstrokes can create a mess. But deployed creatively and with training or practice, they can make art. The same is true of words. Poets can create a mess with their words – a garbled mash of ideas, or an evocative stab to the heart that some five-paragraph essay could never achieve. The best defense of poetry is to stop thinking of it as a form of literature, but instead as a form of artwork. There are abstract versions of artwork, and there are true to life versions. There are paintings that depict serenity and love, and paintings that throw the brutality of war and famine into your privileged face. Poems do the same, except the colors and vibrations take place in your head instead of on the canvas. As far as I can tell there are four reasons poetry serves well as an art form: brevity, beauty, cadence, and lawlessness.
French Philosopher Blaise Pascal was quoted in a letter saying: “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” It takes effort to take an expansive thought and trim it down to the component parts or the underlying idea – to go from verbosity to pithiness. There is beauty in being succinct. Being economical about words is a tried and true method of editing used by writers for centuries: to write in a rambling, prosaic expository manner in order to get all the thoughts onto paper, and then in the editing process to trim away the fat. What kinds of fat might there be in prose? Repetitious adjectives, unnecessary connecting phrases, overly conclusory observations, thrown away lines of dialogue that have little to do with the thesis. Then with poetry, we can cut even more – all the way to the bone. Nearly eliminate connecting words, half of the article adjectives, mandatory punctuation, unspecific modifiers, and anything that isn’t descriptive.
An example from Langston Hughes:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
We don’t have to know what the dream is specifically, but intelligent awareness can give us a hint. This poem played in my head over and over during the Ferguson, Missouri protests. That last line packs a punch. Books have been written with more than 60,000 words that say essentially the same thing in this poem. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s letter from a Birmingham jail hinted at this impatience at what the American Dream means for African Americans. He used 7,000 words. Here, in 1951, Hughes cuts to the heart of all of it in only 51 words. It’s quotable. It can be printed on protest signs. It can be passed down by memory. It can become that well dog-eared page in someone’s notes for the awareness and warning that it brings. If a book is juice, poetry is the concentrate.
Beauty or Poignancy
Not all poetry is beautiful per se. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote about love about as much as he wrote about hardship. But everything he wrote had poignancy if not beauty. Some poetry somehow achieves both mournful tragedy and aesthetic beauty at the same time, like Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. Part of the problem with enjoying poetry is that we too often feel it to be a riddle to be solved as opposed to a fine wine to be sipped and enjoyed. This is the same problem with reading about half of Shakespeare, or the Bible, or Dante’s Inferno. They were not written for us (all of us) to understand. Matthew Arnold was writing words he knew would only eventually be read by the literate and educated English Victorians who, like him, had a well-rounded understanding of references to to Homer and Greek Mythology, and Jonathan Swift. We don’t as readily have that specific literary training today, and so parts of his poetry are lost upon modern minds.
Given the right tools, and given the right author (meaning the author who writes to us instead of someone else) we can read plenty of beautiful poetry. It’s not going to be a random poetry book you pull off the shelf – full of verse that might be important for history’s sake but which might blind us with brain clogging references to things with which we have no familiarity. It would be a book by someone you know, or a contemporary in your lifestyle, your region, your social class. One good rule of thumb is to choose the “performance poet” – someone who is still alive and kicking, and who reads their poetry to audiences. In other words, someone who has trained themselves to be understood by the masses.
An example from Sierra Demulder:
Inevitably, my father will cry at my wedding.
He will be dressed in his only suit coat
which he wears as naturally as a cardboard box.
His jeans, his tie mechanically hung like tinsel…
the way only a father of three women does,
his chest is a tired buoy. It sighs and rises
and everything in his face sinks
as if someone tossed a rock into the pond
and the ripples expand forever and it
is the most beautiful drowning.
Notice how you don’t need the stanzas to have an incredibly touching few sentences here. It is written plainly, without complication. The separation between the lines is done for emphasis and pacing – because it’s not meant to be read like a normal paragraph. This is modern poetry written accessibly. It forces you to feel what you read.
You aren’t going to find much of anything musical in a manuscript on, say, the history of world war one. History writers don’t have the permission of scholars and publishers to use onomatopoetic artistry to capture the sound of the guns firing, the hiss of the air as a missile flies by, or to use alliteration to make a certain points attract extra attention. The repetition of identical vowel sounds called assonance, and the repetition of the same word at the beginning of a line called anaphora would likewise be forbidden in any non-poetic form. Even if used in good fiction writing it might be seen as obtuse and would destroy the pacing of the rest of the book unless the whole thing was actually a poem in disguise (as some books are). Some fiction novels will merge into a poetic form for a page or a chapter when they hit their most gripping sequence for this very reason. If you want to stop talking about caliber and velocity and start talking about the ratta-tat-tat that can shake a soldier to his marrow, you have to start delving into the poetic jargon. Poetry makes words more useful to us.
An example from Siegfried Sassoon:
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
We have to point out that all song lyrics are poems. They are they types of poems that lend themselves to audible harmony. Some poems aren’t songs but could easily be sung if wanted.
For example Gwendolyn Brooks’ short poem We Real Cool:
THE POOL PLAYERS.
SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
I love the poems that go in for the punch at the last line, like that one. You get into a groove, you start to identify with the pride and recklessness of the content. These badass school skippers who “sing sin” and play pool. I bet they wear neat sunglasses and know how to have a party. And then you hit that last line and the whole thing explodes into a greater sense of meaning.
Literature has rules. Professional writing has rules. Poetry has had rules from time to time, albeit frequently broken even by the most famous poets that otherwise held themselves to pentameter and rhyme, stanza-couplet formality.
We like rules, and poetry seems to have few of them anymore because we keep reinventing the methods of conveying meaning through the written word. There is something special about being unburdened from a specific format, something whimsical, maybe even charming. Modern poetry is bohemian in that way, rebellious in spirit, circulated in poorly printed booklets bound by staples or string. Freedom of form can mean freedom of thought. Freedom from mass-publishing can mean freedom to experiment. The relentless guidelines of sentence structure, punctuation, capitalization, and indentation can be cast aside in favor of whatever structure best suits the message being communicated. It is adaptable and nimble.
Using all the conventions of writing in unconventional ways permits experimentation with satire and emphasis. For example, Ambrose Bierce’s A Rational Anthem:
My country ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of felony,
Of thee I sing–
Land where my fathers fried
Young witches and applied
Whips to the Quaker’s hide
And made him spring.
You don’t get that packed-in wit and verve without using poetry. The twisting of a sacred patriotic hymn into a manner that exposes the warts hidden beneath the banal jingoism of the original version. Another example, this time from Emily Dickinson:
Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Straight up repetition is not permitted in non-poetic form. Other forms of writing are forbidden this mechanism of conveying urgency and feeling and rhythm. These words read like song lyrics. They betray norms, and through doing so they give us a deeper idea of the love and elated sentiment that Ms. Dickinson is expressing. The exclamation gives amplitude and the couplet form offers something less bland than the unrhymed prose version, which would read something like: “If I were with you, we would have such extravagant evenings. They would be luxurious, indeed.” One is square and plodding. One is carefree and elevating.
The value of poetry
If you like music you like poems. If you like the playful little things you can do with language, from rhyme to simile, from hyperbole to allusion – then you like poems. If you like how words can paint a picture in your mind and cause you to laugh and cry and empathize and reflect, then you like poetry. Perhaps not the type of poetry in little chapbooks, but you like some version of the art form. An artist might have to choose from 30 to 40 colors, a poet has the entire dictionary and then some for their palette. There are no rules except to poke and prod and as Percy Bysshe Shelley says, to enlarge the circumference of the imagination.