The fatal problem with poetry: poems
Poetry is everywhere. Just when you think poetry is dead, there is rap. I personally suspect that there is hardly a human anywhere who has not at one time or another tried to write a poem, read one, or recited one. When you think no-one makes a living from writing poetry, you find out there are poets living and working all over the world. Maya Angelou anybody? Iain Banks? Viggo Mortensen? There are awards for poets, and famous people who either are poets or who like poetry a lot (like actor Bill Murray). So why is it still around and why do I hate it and still feel driven to write it?
Here, Bill Murray reads two poems by Wallace Stevens (one of my favourite poets) at Bubby’s Brooklyn, as part of Poets House’s 17th Annual Poetry Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge (June 11, 2012). He does it beautifully and he makes it seem kind of normal, not particularly high-brow or obscure.
Having spent years feeling frustratedly inadequate at understanding or appreciating poetry was a bit like painting while having no idea of what else by way of paintings or painters there are in the world, other than the little bit of landscapes or figure studies I do. Or writing only one style of song while there is a whole universe of music out there to learn from. I had finally had it with this subliminal torture. I was determined to crack the nut and make sense of poetry, particularly since the lyrics of the songs I was listening to were driving me NUTS. Working out or sitting on a train for 2, 3 hours at a time gives you awfully many songs to listen to, and after 10, 20 listens, boy, do some of those lyrics ever start to suck. But why? Why are poems in all their different formats, including lyrics, so darn obtuse!? And why do I bother with them?
These questions led to a number of conclusions, including my development of a kind of template to at least document, in one place, what a poem is, out of all the infinite forms they can take. More on that in another post. I even dissected my first lyrics – Tread Water, from the hit 1989 Hip-hop album by De La Soul, 3 Feet High and Rising. How? Check out the article on the next pages and my thoughts on Poetry and Lyrics Reviews.
- The challenge of writing poetry
- Lyric versus narrative poetry
- The I in lyrical poems
- A private or public itch?
- The problem is poetry itself
- Bad poems can be fun and funny
- How to interpret poetry
- A rose is a rose is a rose, a poem is a poem is a poem
- No rebutting permitted
- Why write poetry
- The furtive perfect poem
Is it the goat in me?
Perhaps a poem, being concise and focused on a one idea or image, is one of those super-stimuli which people find pleasurable.
Another theory is that when someone writes a poem using any of the established forms in their own language, the poem gains importance and beauty through the thousands of years of cultural association the form brings with it. A sonnet is a sonnet. When you write a sonnet William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser are hovering in the background, making your poem sound just a tad better. When you write a haiku, the masters from Matsuo Bashō to Kobayashi Issa are also remembered, and your readers give a mental nod in their direction. Some of their excellence rubs off on your work, merely through you applying the discipline of the form.
Thirdly, I feel that reading and writing poetry is a bit like watching those “canyon goats” clamber about on cliff-faces of the Stikine Canyon. You hate looking at them because you just know some of them will fall, and get smashed to smithereens, but at the same time, when they do get it right, it is very satisfying and gives you a vicarious sense of accomplishment. Perhaps, like those goats, humans are hard-wired to manipulate language and expression in complicated ways to show off complicated thinking and complicated skills.
But that process of experimentation does not necessarily make for a loving relationship between poets and poetry. The German essayist and poet Gottfried Benn hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “In the hands of a proper poet, you can lift one stanza out of a railway timetable, the second from a hymnbook, and the third one a joke, and the result will still be a poem.” And vice versa. With not-so-good or part-time poets (people who write poems as opposed to poets, like me), the opposite is true – regardless of where they get the words from or how they are composed – the whole will never be greater than the sum of its parts.
This problem is particularly true for people who write lyric poetry, in other words, poetry that is personal or sung. (Lyric or lyrical means having the form and musical quality of a song (where the word “lyrics” comes from), and especially the character of a songlike outpouring of the poet’s own thoughts and feelings, as distinguished from epic and dramatic poetry.)
There is a distinct difference between lyric poetry, which is often written in the first voice (I, me, mine – addressed to oneself, or to a nobody or an invisible audience) and poetry of the second voice which is addressed to other people, in the sense that the poet is a narrator or describer.
A good example of the second voice in action is The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert William Service, which is often quoted:
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
Lyric poetry, in essence, is the poet’s own voice. (I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud is Wordsworth talking. So is Dolly Parton in her song, I Wasted My Tears – however simple the words are:
I wasted my tears
When I cried over you
I wasted my tears
When I cried over you
I should’ve known
You would never be true
I loved and I lost you
Now I’m so blue
I wasted my tears
When I cried over you
The “I” in lyric or lyrical poems can also be the poet associating themselves with a people in a specific situation or emotion. Same for lyrics – but the closer the association, the more personal the outpouring.
Gottfried Benn, in a lecture called Problems with Lyric Poetry (“Probleme der Lyrik”) pointed out that there are particular human situations and conditions that are likely to result in the writing of lyric poetry. The famous poet T.S. Eliot summarized Benn’s argument like this:
“What, asks Herr Benn in this lecture, does the writer of such a poem, ‘addressed to no one’, start with? There is first, he [Benn] says, an inert embryo of ‘creative germ’…and, on the other hand, the Language, the resources of the words at the poet’s command. He has something germinating in him for which he must find the words; but he cannot know what words he wants until he has found the words; he cannot identify this embryo until it has been transformed into an arrangement of the right words in the right order. When you have the words for it, the thing for which the words had to be found has disappeared replaced by a poem. What you start from is nothing so definite as an emotion, in any ordinary sense; it is still more certainly not an idea…In a poem which is neither didactic nor narrative, and not animated by any other social purpose, the poet may be solely concerned with expressing in verse – using all his resources of words, with their history, their connotation, their music – this obscure impulse.” (What the Thunder Really Said, by Anne C. Bolgan, McGill-Queen’s University Press, May 1974, pp. 23, 24)
However, what author Anne Bolgan points out in this discussion about Benn and Eliot, is that once a poet has rid himself of this “itch that needs scratching” and has then gone to the great trouble of fine-tuning the form, fitting it to music or readying it for performance or publishing, even a lyric poem then has a social purpose – to communicate it to others. It is not merely internal any more, it now has an audience, and the poet, like an artist with a painting, puts the poem “out there” and waits for a reaction – understanding, empathy, sympathy, rejection, anger, disgust, etc.
There is also a theory that for some poets this “creative germ”, being personal, is all about anger at society, about grievances, about fighting back. Those kinds of poems, typically rap, while personal, cannot be strictly lyrical, since not only are they directed at society, but they are about society. And any poem or song that finds an audience is either hated, or loved, or ignored.
Ben Lerner wrote the best explanation I have ever read of why he hates poetry, in Vol. 37 No. 12 · 18 June 2015 of “Diary” in the London Review of Books, in which dreadfully difficult and obtuse poetry is both featured and dissected. And often the dissection is harder to understand than the poem, the terminology and references being the hardest parts.
But Lerner gets to the heart of the matter in plain text:
Basically, he says that we hate poems because we are frequently disappointed by the technique of the poet or the end result. In short, no poem can be a success because writing poetry is just impossibly hard. The odds are heavily stacked against any degree of acceptance.
“The poet and critic Allen Grossman tells a story (there are many versions of the story) that goes like this: you’re moved to write a poem because of some transcendent impulse to get beyond the human, the historical, the finite. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. So the poem is always a record of failure.”
You want to write about love, beauty, growing up in the ghetto, but all you have are the tools of words, sentences, sounds.
We start off when we read or write a poem with the anticipation (consciously or sub-consciously) that it might turn out to be The Perfect Poem. The actual poem, which finally results, is usually far from ideal. An awkward rhyme here, a misused word there, a laboured line here, forced alliteration there, or just an idea that went missing somewhere while fiddling with the words.
Lerner explains that:
“Grossman says actual poems are foredoomed by a ‘bitter logic’ that can’t be overcome by any level of virtuosity. The fatal problem with poetry: poems.“
That’s it. Couldn’t say it any better. This helps explain why poets themselves celebrate poets who renounce writing and love to lambast bad poets.
To read abysmal poems is often hilarious, but there’s an element of idealism mixed into the hilarity: reading the worst poems is a way of feeling, albeit negatively, that echo of poetic possibility. You think to yourself, that could’ve been better this way, or with that word. Or, that doesn’t rhyme – he could’ve used this word. The possibilities are endless, and totally beside the point – the poem has been published or the song recorded.
Oh, there are entire libraries full of really bad, really, really bad poems. The website Relaxorium lists many – their opinion of course, not mine.
William McGonagall (1825 – 1902) was one of the very bad poets. One of his 1883 poems reads:
Good people of Dundee, your voices raise,
And to Miss Baxter give great praise;
Rejoice and sing and dance with glee,
Because she has founded a college in Bonnie Dundee.
The problem is that last line, in which the metre is just messed up, but the subject matter is also pretty pedestrian, and the rhyming scheme not only forced in the last line but as simplistic as the rest. Poor old McGonagall.
As I recall, comedian Spike Milligan was a fan of McGonagall and wrote William McGonagall: The Truth at Last (1978), but his poetry, especially in Small Dreams of a Scorpion (1973) was sometimes both trite and awkward and not much better than McGonagall’s. Is this poem, below, about at shallow as a breadboard? And rhyming “five” and “alive”? Ouch. Talk about clichéd rhyme.
2B or not 2B
When I was small and five,
I found a pencil sharpener alive!
He lay in lonely grasses,
Looking for work.
I brought a pencil for him,
He ate and ate until all that was
Left was a pile of wood dust.
It was the happiest pencil sharpener
I ever had.
Considering all of this it amazes me that there are still poetry competitions and poetry writing bursaries and awards. I mean, who on earth is considered good enough to judge? Where do you draw the line at what’s good or bad? I have spent ages looking at what makes up a poem, and discovered that, apart from defining what poetry is, as opposed to prose, there is still no answer as to whether a poem works, or why. Or what is a perfect poem if the poem we are looking at now is NOT perfect?
Lerner writes: “Think of Plato’s ‘argument from imperfection’: in order to perceive a particular thing to be imperfect, we must have in mind some ideal of perfection.” Is it Keats’s Odes? Shakespeare’s sonnets? Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s love poems? E.E. Cummings’s strangely punctuated poems? Shel Silverstein’s witty and oddly tender verses? Emily Dickinson’s poems filled with dissonance (non-rhyming) distressed metres and slant rhymes and peculiar use of dashes and capitalization?
How’s this poem by Emily Dickinson for hitting the nail on the head of what being a wife and being in a deep relationship were all about in the 1860s:
She rose to His Requirement – dropt
The Playthings of Her Life
To take the honorable Work
Of Woman, and of Wife –
If ought She missed in Her new Day,
Of Amplitude, or Awe –
Or first Prospective – Or the Gold
In using, wear away,
It lay unmentioned – as the Sea
Develope Pearl, and Weed,
But only to Himself – be known
The Fathoms they abide –
Ultimately, every poem, though it has the potential for the perfect combination of content and form, will be flawed, since it will be somehow rejected because of our desire for perfection and our disappointment in how it turns out. And if form is the problem, why not reject existing forms altogether?
According to Lerner, “There’s an important class of intense poetry-haters who would probably hate my description of poetry as providing an inverted and necessarily limited glimmer of poetic potentiality: the avant-garde. It’s their hatred of poetry that gives rise to the poem in which formal experiment is going to eviscerate existing canons of taste and help bring about the revolution. So Marinetti advocates a language that’s broken free of syntax (‘Parole in Libertà’) and that experiments with typography (‘Immaginazione Senza Fili’; ‘Analogia Disegnata’) and pure sound (‘Zang Tumb Tuuum’), and these works obliterate what passed for culture in the past, obliterate the category of art itself…The problem is – and here’s where a second kind of avant-garde hatred comes in – these artworks, no matter how formally inventive, remain artworks. They might redefine the borders of art, but they don’t destroy those borders; a bomb that never goes off, the poem remains a poem. And they hate that.”
There you go then. A poem is a poem is a poem. A painting is a painting is a painting. And whatever you write in poetry, or compose for a song, or paint on a canvas will always fall short of what people expect. Doesn’t matter if it is a rhyme on a greeting card or a collection printed on expensive paper in a limited edition.
And, in summary, that’s why I hate poems. And love them. But mostly hate them.
I sidle up to poems when I see them appear in their verse format, line by line, and I start to read them and almost inevitably, halfway through, I think “bah!” and stop. To read an entire volume of poetry is akin to mental torture. It is serious WORK to stop rejecting a poem and in stead, analyze it and look at it with open eyes.
And you might say, why do it then?
Again, it’s back to the whole thing of social purpose. Poems – even lyric poems – are the the voices of poets that are looking for ears that will hear them, mind that will remember them, emotions that will mirror them. Poets write for themselves and for others, and unfortunately, this means that the poet has to put up with the wide range of often random and unexpected reactions to their poems. Poets, more so than novelists, have no leg to stand on to rebut their critics. Poets cannot rebut. Period. Even poets that write about safe “domestic themes” are not safe from criticism and cannot rebut. If you hate my poems and tell me so, I can’t rebut either. If I enter my poems in poetry competition and don’t even get a mention – which has happened a lot – I can’t complain.
Considering all this, it must be a very strong impulse indeed to share one’s thoughts that can drive a poet to actually PUBLISHING their poems.
Literary critic Marina le Roux, founder of the Stellenbosch Afrikaans poetry club (as opposed to a book club), the Stellenbosch Poësiekring, says that the relationship that does exist is not between the poet and his readers but between the reader and the text – a serious matter, a marriage ritual between gods– “hieros gamos”.
“The time of easy reading, when poems were as intrinsic to ordinary speech as singing was, is long since over. Subjects are more complicated, form is more complicated. The reader, when making sense of the poem, becomes the co-creator of it because a poem is the subject, the words – and their meaning; content, form and interpretation. And that is a serious responsibility.”
If someone looks at a painting and says, oh, it is a lovely seascape, the artist might think, oh, no, it is actually a landscape. Or: that must be a tree. And the artist: that’s a wooden bench. The viewer sees what he sees. And in doing so he puts his own, different spin on the painting. “The reader reads and in doing so attributes his own meaning to a poem, and also the meaning that can be derived from the context of the poem. There is no ONE meaning, and no ONE take or judgment of a poem.” (Again, one has to ask: how do poetry competitions work? Ratings by consensus?) And what qualifies someone to be a Poet Laureate?
There are as many potential forms of a poem, as their are possible interpretations, and possible reasons for writing them.
Lerner concludes that “There are varieties of interpenetrating demands subsumed under the word ‘poetry’ –
- to defeat time,
- to still it beautifully;
- to express irreducible individuality in a way that can be recognised socially or,
- like [Walt] Whitman, to achieve universality by being irreducibly social, less a person than a national technology;
- to propound a measure of value beyond money,
- to defeat the language and value of existing society etc .
– but one thing all these demands share is that they can’t ever be fulfilled with poems. Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic, if sometimes unwitting, way of expressing the persistence of the demand of Poetry, and the jeremiads in that regard are defences, too, protecting the urgency and purity of the poetic impulse towards alterity from the merely real.
Poets are liars not because, as Socrates said, they can fool us with the power of their imitations, but because identifying yourself as a poet implies you might overcome the bitter logic of the poetic principle, and you can’t. You can only compose poems that, when read with perfect contempt, clear a place for the genuine Poem that never appears.” Ergo, poets and song-writers are suckers for punishment.
I know that I will never write the Perfect Poem. On the other hand, I am content to write poems that capture a scene or a feeling, or describe a painting. Or vent my feelings. I’m OK with the lesser ambitions of poets. But that still does not mean that I like reading the attempts of other poets. And as you will see on the new pages of Poetry and Lyrics Reviews on my website, that apprehension is not going away any time soon.