Literary Transgression: Poetry

October 28, 2009 at 12:00 am Leave a comment

I loathe poetry.

Well, maybe that’s unfair. I do like some poetry: Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, John Donne, Edna St. Vincent Millay, selected Rilke and Blake, and a smattering of Yeats, Shelley and Coleridge. I enjoyed what I read of Edmund Spenser very much, and I even got on board with a few of Anne Bradstreet’s poems.

What I don’t like is how poetry seems to be the official chosen form of the teenage writer, most of whom  seem to labour under a few poetical misconceptions. Namely, that 1) because poetry is short, it’s easy to write; 2) if it rhymes, that’s better; 3) the best poetry is autobiographical; and 4) metaphors must be made explicitly clear to the reader, because the reader is not as smart as the writer.

To address the first problem, let me first say that poetry is not always short. In fact, some of my favorite poetry is long — I think it’s because I like a more continuous narrative. For that reason, even though Sharp Teeth is a book-length poem, the style of which can be a little obscure, I still greatly enjoyed it.

But what new writers fail to realize is that the shortness of most poems means that word choice becomes much more important. In prose, a not-quite-right word might jar the reader for a second, but the reader has about 300 other words on the page to focus on. With a poem, each word weighs more. A haiku is the perfect example — one mis-chosen word could ruin the entire piece, because there are maybe only 16 other words around it, and the reader’s attention is drawn to the word that reads oddly.

Secondly, rhyming is great when it sounds natural. Shakespeare did it, and I think we can all agree that Shakespeare’s rhymes don’t sound contrived, despite having been written in an extraordinarily strict form. Shakespeare’s poetry sounds as if he naturally speaks in sonnets. A new poet stretching to rhyme “death” with “breath” and “old” with “cold” sounds like just that — a new poet, or perhaps a lazy one.

Thirdly, just no. This is harsh, but I don’t really want to hear about the poet’s feelings unless he or she is describing them in a new and beautiful way. If I wanted to read poems about standing alone screaming in a wilderness, or silently weeping tears of blood, or anything else that implies that the writer is all alone, misunderstood and under-appreciated, I would just flip through a few of my notebooks from high school.

I hate to judge, because we’ve all done it. Most writing-inclined students have turned to poetry at some point or other as form of emotional expression. But that doesn’t make the resulting work good. Kids, take a lesson from Rilke. At least when he felt alone, he expressed it wonderfully: “Who, if I screamed, would hear me in the ranks of the angels?”

Lastly, for the love of all that is sacred and literary, I understand your metaphors. So does everyone else. Your love is like a red, red rose, life is a journey, two roads diverged, your emotions are as deep as the sea. This is nothing new. Rest assured that you do not need to drive the point home by adding a stanza about how your heart soars with the seagulls flying over the waves or whatever.

That said, I suppose without bad poetry, there’d be no good poetry, and now that I’m past my literary anthology-editing days (for the moment) I suppose no one is forcing me to read substandard poetry. Still, every time I stumble on a lazily-chosen word in a poem about the ocean (usually posted on Livejournal),  something inside of me dies a little.

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Entry filed under: Transgressions. Tags: .

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