Sunday, December 12, 2010

Crude and Rude Rules for Reading Poetry

I wear the same four shirts to work. This is because I cannot be trusted to dress myself. I don’t own orange and purple because I would try to match them. In college my room mates had to forcibly prevent me from walking out in sweats and a trench coat. I still don’t see what the problem was, but I’m assuming there was one because they sat on me. Fashion is an art I will never understand.

I feel the exact same way about poetry. Give me a piece of prose and I’ll tell you exactly how I feel about it, my reasons for emoting, what worked, what didn’t, what kind of mood the author was in when they wrote it and whether they were loved as a child. Kafka wasn’t. Nabokov was. Maybe a little too well. (I’m sorry. That was crass.) I'll be making most of it up, but at least there's something to make up.

But poetry? Unless a poem is so bad it’s good—say, rhymes baleen with spleen—it’s above my head. If someone tells me a poem is good, I nod. If someone tells me a poem’s bad I nod. If one person tells me the poem is good and one person tells me it’s bad, I flip a coin.

Not for the faint of heart

I hate that. I really hate getting owned, but it’s one thing to get owned by your wardrobe. It’s another thing to get owned by poetry.

So I decided to hack the system.

New rule: All poetry is shit unless it falls into one of these three categories.

1) Gorgeous

What makes a poem gorgeous? I dunno. What makes a person gorgeous? Cheekbones? Jawline? Graceful hands? It’s like that with poetry too. Sometimes gorgeous means badass imagery. Sometimes it means a nameless charm that compels you to read line after line. It’s a highly subjective quality, it changes from person to person, mood to mood, but you know it when you see it. And sometimes you change your mind. That’s allowed too.

This is gorgeous:

I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
nonsense,
pure wisdom
of someone who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
the heavens
unfastened
and open,
planets,
palpitating plantations,
shadow perforated,
riddled
with arrows, fire and flowers,
the winding night, the universe.

-Poetry, Pablo Neruda

This is not:

I slouch in bed
Beyond the streaked trees of my window,
All groves are bare.
Locusts and poplars change to unmarried women.
Sorting slate from anthracite
Between railroad ties:
The yellow bearded winter of the depression
Is still alive somewhere, an old man
Counting his collection of bottle caps
In a tarpaper shack under the cold trees
Of my grave.

-Two Hangovers, James Wright

But, Owl, you’re comparing a description of the heavens to a description of well, lying in bed being depressed. Yes. But Neruda also does depressed, and it’s still gorgeous.

I don't want to go on being a root in the dark,
insecure, stretched out, shivering with sleep,
going on down, into the moist guts of the earth,
taking in and thinking, eating every day.

-Walking Around, Pablo Neruda

Two Hangovers falls into the category of poems that make me angry, poems that are clever and sleek in their poeminess, and I read them and I do not understand what I am supposed to get out of them. Under the new rules this is a shit poem. Sorry Wright.

2) Catchy

Catchy like one of those top hits played on the radio 24/7. There are fancy words about meter and rhythm to describe this, but I’m going to avoid them. My friends used to drum out meter on my head whenever I had to write a sonnet for class. I have done my very best to forget everything I know about meter and rhyme.

Catchy means you read the poem and the words spin through your head over and over again. Dylan Thomas’s "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" is catchy. Sylvia Plath’s  “Mad Girl’s Love Song” is catchy. Villanelles generally are.

This is catchy. Read this out loud. No seriously.

Hear the sledges with the bells -
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells -
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

-The Bells, Edgar Allan Poe

I have a slight problem with tintinnabulation (what does that even mean?) but it’s pure magic the way you can hear the clanking and clashing of giant bells tolling in your voice as you read.

3) Moving

There are poems that are like gigantic silver airplanes that catapult you into the sky. And then there are poems that are quieter, like catching the eye of a stranger at a party and chuckling together over the rim of your glass. I like wheeling across the sky. I also like chuckling. What matters here, is that the poem forges a connection. Whether it’s comic, or tragic, or a little of both, you read it, and something clicks. Ah. Yes. That. I know that.

This is not moving (or gorgeous, or catchy):

'Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land,
Taught my beknighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Savior too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their color is a diabolic dye."
Remember Christians; Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

-On Being Brought from Africa to America, Phillis Wheatley

I—don’t get me started. I just want to slap her. I should make allowances. She was kidnapped as a child and had a hard life.

This is the chuckle:
At dawn I rose to escort the Doctors of Art;
In the eastern quarter the sky was still grey.
I said to myself, “you have started far too soon,”
But horses and coaches already thronged the road.
High and low the riders’ torches bobbed;
Muffled or loud, the watchman’s drum beat.
Riders, when I see you prick
To your early levee, pity fills my heart.
When the sun rises and the hot dust flies
And the creatures of earth resume their great strife,
You, with your striving, what shall you each seek?
Profit and fame, for that is all your care.
But I, you courtiers, rise from my bed at noon
And live idly in the city of Ch’ang-an.
Spring is deep and my term of office spent;
Day by day my thoughts go back to the hills.

-Escorting Candidates to the Examination Hall, Bai Juyi (translated by Arthur Waley)

This isn’t overly gorgeous, there are moments of awkwardness like Prick/ to your early levee? That sounds obscene. I blame the translator. But, I laughed when I read it two years ago, and though Bai Juyi died in 846 AD, he’s on my brunch partner wish list.

And this, this, is like flying:

Even
After
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,

'You owe
Me.'

Look
What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the
Whole
Sky.

-The Sun Never Says, Hafiz (translated by Daniel Ladinsky)

It is these poems, the moving ones—even if they are as gorgeous as pond scum, or have lines that clang, or even if there is a lot of deadwood and the only moving part is the last line—it is these poems I scrawl onto scraps of paper to keep forever.

Edit: Perhaps I am being unfair, but what makes me angry about poems like Wright and Wheatley's, or well, to be very biased, poems I don't like, is that they leave you going, erm, well, that was clever, but what does it mean? Reading good poetry is an almost religious experience. You don't have to be well educated or smart or poetical by nature to be moved by a good poem. The poem will do all the work. If it doesn't, something's wrong. But clever poetry will merely make you go, erm. I am sick of the tyranny of bad poetry, the way it drowns out good poetry and chases away would-be poetry readers when poetry really is the language of one soul shouting hello to another.

Photo Credit:
Rich Ercolani 

Note: All of Owl's photos are of rabbits because
a) Her camera is broken so she's relying on a stock
b) Her beanie baby, erm, avatar is in a different state

17 comments:

  1. The Mother Goose book that Owl is reading is a reprint of one that my father had as a kid, and whose pictures I loved looking at, myself, as a kid. I wrote my name on one that I thought was especially pretty (but I'm having a hard time remembering the actual rhyme).

    Poetry is SO subjective. I don't mind that James Wright poem, but I do love both the Neruda ones, and the translation from Hafiz.

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  2. @asakiyume
    That's awesome! I love when books have such a rich history. I don't actually own that book, but now I'm going to have to look it up.

    Poetry really is! It took me forever in college to realize that it's okay not to like a poem. I think that's what bugged me before, I'd read all these famous poems, have no reaction and then wonder if I was just unsuited to reading poetry.

    I have an irrational hatred for James Wright that had to do with spending a semester course reading all of his works. He held up for two months. After that I wanted to use his life works as a dart board. There are very few poets I could take for an entire semester, and Wright is definitely not one of them.

    -Rabbitowl. Rowl?

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  3. I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT TO DO WITH POETRY EITHER!!

    there I said it.
    I like your set of rules. They make sense. They will at least help me to distinguish (for myself) poems I love and poems I hate. Because the vast middle ground is the one that defeats me.

    Lots of poetry students are in my classes. I want to read their stuff: but mostly I hope to God they don't ask me to critique/comment because I just don't know what to say. I liked it. I didn't like it (which I'd be scared to say, because they'd ask me why, and I wouldn't be able to explain, forget give constructive criticism or helpful advice). And much of their poetry, I honestly enjoy, but I feel like they're not just going for enjoyment: they want to shake the earth, to really MOVE their readers, and if I'm not moved I don't know how to say so.

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  4. @tamasha420
    Yes! Middle ground poetry is impossible to talk about. Half the time I don't even realize it's middle ground, I just know that I'm not feelin' it and I don't know why. So not feelin' it has become my red flag for middle ground.

    Enjoying a poem is fair though--I'd say that's still a good poem. It is tough though, mixing poetry and friendship.

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  5. I really love some of Plath's poetry, and "Mad Girl's Love Song" is one of my all-time favorites. Her prose writing really plods, in my opinion, but her writing sometimes soars.

    Honestly, I think I pretty much have your criteria for what is and isn't a good poem. I really only care about poetry that moves me.

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  6. Herp, I meant "poetry" for writing. It's been a loong day.

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  7. @Miss Felis
    I've been reading the Plath book you gave me for graduation and it's one of the first times I've enjoyed her writing.

    Also, glad to know I'm not the only one. I get so sick of cardboard poetry.

    Hope your day got better. :)

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  8. What I look for in poetry (and songs, and most writing in general) is something that pries up a cobblestone in the hollow city in my head, and instead of worms and beetles and dirt there's a rainbow gem or a window looking down from the sky of another world or something that springs out and punches me in the face and I'm like, OHHHH.

    Catchiness is secondary to me - it must sound *right* (i.e. the tone and word choice and the feeling of rolling the poem off your tongue, even your silent reading-to-yourself-tongue, must fit with the tone and words and lines of the poem.) "The Bells" succeed *in spite of* catchiness, IMHO. Mmh. I dunno, I guess I look for a different aspect of catchiness than that in "The Bells" maybe. (For instance, I'm a fan of John Donne ever since we had him for English class - and that poem that became the basis for Howl's Moving Castle, "Song", that's somewhat catchy. Its singsongyness fits the fairytale theme.)

    But definitely, lines should not plod and drag - like "sorting slate to anthracite" or "taught my beknighted soul"... bleugh. Not transcendent, not "OHHHH", just bad.

    And "tintinnabulation" is exactly what it sounds like. Which is kind of the point. :P

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  9. @gilrandir

    "that pries up a cobblestone in the hollow city in my head, and instead of worms and beetles and dirt there's a rainbow gem or a window looking down from the sky of another world or something that springs out and punches me in the face and I'm like, OHHHH."

    That was lovely. And yes. Yes. YES! I didn't realize that for the longest time. I thought poetry was intellectual writing that was above my head. Than I ran into a few poems that punched me in the gut, literally forced themselves upon me, left me gasping. Since them I've raged against bad poetry for failing to punch me.

    Huh--I didn't think of "The Bells" succeeding despite it's catchiness, but I agree, catchiness on its own doesn't hold up that well. Sort of. I like the rhythms that weave in and out of poems, poems that glue themselves to your mind despite your best efforts to forget them.

    What do you look for in catchiness then?

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  10. I used to think that poetry had to be rhyme and meter, and that free verse was cheating and written by people who couldn't be disciplined enough to write "proper" poetry... I still think free verse is way easier than rhyme and meter, but you *can* do some pretty good things with it anyway.

    Urg, I usually don't read poetry for fun - not like the way I read books. Too much of it is just meh, and if there's a Collection of So-and-so's poetry the themes often become all too evident and everything melts together into gray mush, which is really depressing. So I depend on scavenging and recs and Exceptindreams and classes and such. Most of the "poetry" I like nowadays is in the Chinese/Taiwanese songs I listen to, the ones where the words are brilliant, the turns of phrases are *just so* and the music fits the lyrics just right (not to say I don't listen to less poetic music either, just that the ones I really really like tend to be particularly poetical.) And those are pretty much designed to be catchy, I mean, they're pop songs. XD;;

    Uh. Catchiness. Uhm. I guess The Poetic Edda ( http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe03.htm ) - that sounds weird/doesn't-count, somehow, and rather pretentious. Same with "Jabberwocky". Emily Dickinson can be pretty catchy, but I'm mostly sick of her by now. "Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff" is fairly catchy, but every time I read it I hear the condescending explanations and smug satisfaction of my high school English teacher as his sarcastic, tearing-people-down ways are validated, and it irks me. I don't know if this counts as "catchy", but I like it: http://minekey.com/theopinion/3454829/roman-tombstone-do-not-pass-by-my-epitaph-traveler

    Really, I'm fast reaching the conclusion that I don't much care for catchiness at all in my poetry. XD;;;;

    Oh, oh, but I like "The Hollow Men"! To a lesser extent "The Love Song Of Alfred J. Prufrock". T.S. Eliot's stuff is pretty catchy, I suppose. "Easter Wings"! (At this point I'm flipping through an old Writing Sems syllabus to be reminded of stuff XD;;) "Ars Poetica". Um. Yeah, idk.

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  11. I used to think that poetry had to be rhyme and meter, and that free verse was cheating and written by people who couldn't be disciplined enough to write "proper" poetry... I still think free verse is way easier than rhyme and meter, but you *can* do some pretty good things with it anyway.

    Urg, I usually don't read poetry for fun - not like the way I read books. Too much of it is just meh, and if there's a Collection of So-and-so's poetry the themes often become all too evident and everything melts together into gray mush, which is really depressing. So I depend on scavenging and recs and Exceptindreams and classes and such. Most of the "poetry" I like nowadays is in the Chinese/Taiwanese songs I listen to, the ones where the words are brilliant, the turns of phrases are *just so* and the music fits the lyrics just right (not to say I don't listen to less poetic music either, just that the ones I really really like tend to be particularly poetical.) And those are pretty much designed to be catchy, I mean, they're pop songs. XD;;

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  12. (I broke this comment box too!)

    Uh. Catchiness. Uhm. I guess The Poetic Edda ( http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe03.htm ) - that sounds weird/doesn't-count, somehow, and rather pretentious. Same with "Jabberwocky". Emily Dickinson can be pretty catchy, but I'm mostly sick of her by now. "Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff" is fairly catchy, but every time I read it I hear the condescending explanations and smug satisfaction of my high school English teacher as his sarcastic, tearing-people-down ways are validated, and it irks me. I don't know if this counts as "catchy", but I like it: http://minekey.com/theopinion/3454829/roman-tombstone-do-not-pass-by-my-epitaph-traveler

    Really, I'm fast reaching the conclusion that I don't much care for catchiness at all in my poetry. XD;;;;

    Oh, oh, but I like "The Hollow Men"! To a lesser extent "The Love Song Of Alfred J. Prufrock". T.S. Eliot's stuff is pretty catchy, I suppose. "Easter Wings"! (At this point I'm flipping through an old Writing Sems syllabus to be reminded of stuff XD;;) "Ars Poetica". Um. Yeah, idk.

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  13. wtf, it showed as not going through earlier. Sorry for the double-post, feel free to remove the extraneous comments >_>;;

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  14. @Gilrandir
    It was a long time before I realized it was okay for poetry to not have rhyme and meter. And it was a relief because, well, you've heard me do rhyme and meter and it's been a disaster. But sometimes I think poetry is easier when you can do rhyme and meter (I mean if you have the hang of it) because the structured rules limit your options. Because you have to work within a framework you have some goal to aspire to. Without the framework you are confronting the blank page with no guidance whatsoever. Terrifying.

    It is really hard to read poetry for fun. I never did it pre-college. Even though whenever I do read a poetry collection I feel like I'm not doing something properly and at any moment the poetry police are going to yell at me to stop butchering the poor poems.

    Oooh, gonna look up all of those poems! I'm divided on Dickinson. Sometimes I love her because she gets a line just right,

    ex:
    This is my letter to the world,
    That never wrote to me,

    and other times I'm just like, wtf is she talking about? Under my new rules I'm going those poems are when Dickinson wasn't quite on. ^_^

    I'm so jealous you know Chinese. I've been reading To Fu's poetry and I'm at the complete mercy of translators. Mostly I'm okay with this, until I pick up something in Spanish and then I realize how sometimes translators are brilliant surgeons with great delicacy and other times they're just butchers--and they can't help themselves, they have to be.

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  15. This is awesome. Now I definitely feel the need to read Neruda at the very least. Please recommend to me some more poets!

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  16. @shadownephilim

    Hafiz translated by Daniel Ladinsky!!

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