Friday, February 6, 2009

I Hate Poetry! Or Do I?

I was at a book club last night and one of the members said something that intrigued me. He said he didn't like short stories because everyone thought they were capable of writing one and as a result there were a lot of really really crappy ones floating around out there. He said that with novels he felt like the time investment involved prevented the truly horrific writers from completing a book and getting published. Now I've encountered plenty of books that were clearly written under the influence of some amazing hallucinogen and published with the author's eyes firmly closed to all defects in writing, plot, and style, but aside from that, I thought he made an interesting point on a broader scale. When you reduce writing to a kind of playdough-molding activity, where people just play with words and sentences and ideas, you're inevitably going to get some really bad eggs (I feel like I can say this with impunity since I fall into the same trap).

And I feel like this is more true (I definitely almost wrote truer - who am I to set myself up as a critic anyway?) in the world of poetry than anywhere else. I've sat in on my fair share of poetry and writing classes, and most of it is just friggin' awful. I mean, did you hear that inauguration poem? Don't get me wrong. I can enjoy modern poetry, and I feel that free verse in poetry isn't necessarily a bad thing. But it has to be poetry; by my definition, that means it needs a certain feel for literary technique, rhyme, and sound. It needs to sound good when read out loud, and it needs to be read by someone who doesn't pause after every 3rd word for no apparent reason. As I'm looking at it now, I can enjoy it Elizabeth Alexander's poem on the page, but her reading made me want to strangle something. (Not her. Maybe a stuffed animal. I'm secretly nonviolent.)

Where did we go wrong? When did poetry stop being something that the masses or rather, the reading masses, wanted to pick up, buy in stores, memorize, carry around with them on their persons and in their hearts? When did forms become something to be shunned, and disciplined art something to avoid? If I ever create a poem with a rhyme scheme, I show it to my dad, shuffle it away, and never show it to another living soul, because that's "outdatded" and "funny-sounding". Strange that I still don't hear that about Frost's poetry. I'm not saying there aren't awful poems out there with a fixed form. I'm just saying that somewhere along the line free verse - or Something Else - has caused poetry to become so horrifically boring or so fantastically obscure that no one wants to hear it and poetry simply "doesn't sell." And don't feed me bull about being all great art being misunderstood - if no one will buy your work there's a possibility that it's a lack of skill on your part and not the system's fault.

A lack of discipline, that's what i'm trying to get at in my bumbling, roundabout way. I fear that the advent of free verse ended with destroying the conception that a good poem should be built with literary tools and people began trying to knock houses together with nothing more than sheer determination and a blunt rock.

And that's clearly not what good free verse is about! You can see the work in William Carlos Williams, and yet that poem is so simple and easily understood. But someone needs to lay down the whats and whys. Perhaps someone with more skill than myself could write a semi-definitive stylebook at least explaining what good free verse could include, so we could all stop fumbling around in the dark like blind men describing an elephant. I want to see a more definitive free verse than this:

"Free verse is a term describing various styles of poetry that are written without using strict meter or rhyme, but still recognizable as poetry by virtue of complex patterns of one sort or another that readers will perceive to be part of a coherent whole.[1]

Free Verse poetry does not have a strict pattern of rhyming. It does not have regular meter, rhyme, fixed line length, or a specific stanza pattern." - Wikepedia (yes, History Husband. I used it as a reference point)

"still recognizable as poetry by virtue of complex patterns of one sort or another"???? Doesn't that just sound like a euphemism for something that should be more clear? Shouldn't there be a way that a higher power can step in (as in the old days) and say, "This poem is foul, and here is why in plain, angry English!" Instead, in classes we sidestep bad language with "I really like your controlled voice" and a lack of rhythm with "great use of free verse!" I enjoyed the Robert Frost quote I found on Wikipedia; he remarked that free verse was like "playing tennis without a net".

I guess when it comes down to it I'm just a damn lowbrow. I want art to be enjoyed, intelligently enjoyed, by more than 20 people who have advanced degrees and can laugh at obscure independent publisher jokes. And often, modern poetry simply doesn't connect - doesn't even try to connect - with the people who should be reading it for enjoyment. And I guess in the end I'm not even sure if it's the fact that everyone thinks they can write poetry or some more obscure reason beyond my ability to comprehend. But I know that art requires some discipline, and if you're not willing to learn some to write poetry, you should probably stick to your diary. Or your blog. ;)