“Is that really a poem?”
When I share contemporary poetry with students or friends, I hear this question more than any other. Many people reading poetry outside of “the academy” will sometimes tell me how they like poems that rhyme and they don’t quite get the stuff contemporary writers are publishing. My foreign students in particular were baffled by non-rhyming, seemingly formless poems that we encountered in our Anthology of American Literature because in their languages, poetry still rhymes, and always has.
I sympathize with these questions because even as someone with two English degrees, I also experience a lot of confusion or even distaste for some (much) of the contemporary poetry I encounter. With this resistance in mind, and in the interest of helping bring new poetry readers into the fold, I thought I would share some things I try to keep in mind when I read poems written by contemporary writers.
1. Recognize your need to SLOW DOWN
I do a lot of reading on the internet these days, like most people. And no doubt you’ve begun to experience, as I have, the sensation that your mind is racing to the next tweet or Facebook feed entry. Reading online feels a bit more jittery and caffeinated than is suited to poetry reading. Nevertheless, this is one of the reasons I think it’s important to read poetry in the first place, and perhaps why it is more important than ever. We need our habit of scanning and ingesting and regurgitating to be tempered a bit. These days when I read a poem, I often have to stop myself several lines in and start over. Sometimes if I’m particularly distracted, I have do this multiple times – it always feels like that moment when you pull off the interstate having been buzzing along at 80 mph and you suddenly have to take the exit at 30. Reading online makes me speed blind, but poetry asks me to be the careful driver on a scenic rural route.
2. You don’t have to like – or even react to – everything
There’s a lot of writing out there, probably more than there has ever been. And a lot of it does not appeal to me, for whatever reason. That is okay. I think this is one of the things that has freed me the most in my enjoyment of contemporary poetry. Going through an English Literature undergrad and a Rhetoric graduate degree, I have read a LOT (Dr. Ritchie hates the word a lot, sorry) of the major names and works, and part of my education was to respond or react to what I read. This trained me to have a ready opinion or idea about everything that I read, a useful skill when prepping for tests, but not as useful when browsing the bookshop. It took me awhile to simply allow myself to read something (carefully, giving it slow attention) and then, if I didn’t like it or see something interesting worth digging in to, close the book. There is no final exam looming, so read what you want!
3. Realize the poet may not be writing for YOU
There is a giant literary world out there that basically exists in the shadowy corner of popular literature and Amazon bestseller lists. That world is populated by sad creatures like myself, academics scrambling to make a name for themselves however they can, and being published is a primary marker of success in this world. With fewer and fewer university jobs available, and more and more of us working as marginally-paid, part-time instructors (do NOT get me started on this, it’s a whole ‘nother rant), part of the way writers can telegraph their status is through what they write. In this subculture, there are trendy topics and preoccupations, assumptions about what kind of writing is valuable and what is not. And when I say valuable, I mean actual, monetary value, in terms of tenure or straight-up employment. So this academic circus determines much of what gets awards or promotion in the poetry world. Make of this what you will, but understand that these are the forces which shape the way contemporary poetry looks, what it is about, and who reads it.
4. Know what you’re looking for from poems
The way I deal with #3 – that poets might not envision me as their ideal reader – is to have a clear understanding for myself of what I enjoy and expect from a poem. We no longer live in an era when poets are called upon to pontificate about national events or memorialize queens and presidents. Poetry’s projects are smaller, and I think that is okay. I have a couple memories of reading and sharing poetry that illustrate what I mean. One of my favorite memories was when my aunt, uncle and cousin came to visit me in Budapest, Hungary at the end of my first year teaching there. They took me out to dinner at a cafe down the street from my apartment (a cafe that was constantly changing names and owners, but which seemed to have consistently great food), and as we waited for our dinners, my cousin pulled out Billy Collins’s collection Sailing Alone Around the Room and read us the poem, “Consolation“. It’s a wry little poem about the pleasures of NOT traveling, which struck us all as hilarious given where we were and what we were doing each day. I still remember that moment because of the poem and the way that it reflected our lives back to us, giving us a lot of joy.
Another poem that became significant to me was Mary Oliver’s poem “Praying“, which a college friend sent to me in a letter while I was living in Lithuania, teaching college students. I put it up on the bulletin board over my desk and looked at it daily, both as a reminder of friends who cared about me from a long way away, and as a reminder of what poetry itself can be. Oliver suggests that poems don’t have to be “a contest but the doorway / into thanks, and a silence / in which another voice may speak”.
Finally, I think poetry can help us to say things that would otherwise be too heavy to say on our own. My aunt – the one who visited me in Hungary – passed away last November after several years of struggle with paralysis after an accident. When we knew she would go soon, my family flew to Minnesota to say our goodbyes. I brought Jane Kenyon’s collection Otherwise and when I had my chance to talk to her, unresponsive as she was at that point, I read her “Let Evening Come,” which is a elgaic poem about allowing death to come naturally and quietly, but with the understanding that there is ultimate comfort to draw upon. I could not have come up with meaningful words at that point in time, so poetry helped me to say goodbye in a way that I wanted to, but which would have been hard to achieve on my own.
These are the things I look for poetry to do – to reflect my life back to me so that I can experience it more fully, to help me give thanks and know when to be silent, and allow me to say things that are otherwise unsayable. These are not academic intentions, and they won’t get me tenure anywhere, but they help me set an agenda for what I choose to read.
I hope these ideas might help you move beyond reading just the “Dead Poet’s Society,” and read living writers, knowing that their poems might not rhyme (or they might), might seem formless (but probably aren’t), or might be about topics you aren’t interested in (but which are probably important in ways you’ve not realized yet).