Avoid the Deadly Poison
This is a discussion of three commonly accepted notions about poetry that I believe to be either partially or entirely wrong. To say they are “commonly held” is an understatement. Each is almost universally accepted, each is often taught by otherwise genuinely good teachers, and each is a distinct aesthetic pathogen which together form the chronic disease that afflicts the world of poetry in English.
Those “otherwise genuinely good teachers” are the ones who tend to be the most passionate about poetry and about passing it on to the next generation. They’re the people I respect and love the most, which makes if very tempting to be diplomatic about this business of what I believe to be chronic error. I tell myself, “Maybe I’m wrong. And even if I’m right, why hurt people’s feelings?”
Well, here’s why. The consequence of error is failure. In 1940 a fundamental engineering error caused the then new Tacoma Narrows Bridge to collapse resulting in an immediate, universal overhaul of bridge building principles. We human beings are pretty serious about correcting engineering failure. Yet we accept the almost ubiquitous failure of poetry in English, and we pass on to the next generation the flawed principles responsible for that failure.
What we need is an investigation of our underlying principles, an examination of their utility, a heartfelt dispute over the question of their validity; thus the subtitle – An Invitation to So here they are, what I sincerely believe to be the core of apocryphal doctrine of English poetry, and while I am sincere in this belief, I’d be very surprised if I weren’t guilty of a few errors of my own. So please read with an open mind, but read aggressively, and, if you disagree, we should argue about it, poetry needs us to argue about it. And if we argue well, if we argue with intensity and mutual respect, there’s every reason to believe that the world of poetry in English will be a tad healthier for our efforts.
Misconception Number 1: “A poem is a picture in words.” **
Imagery is a powerful poetic device. Simply put, itâ€™s language that makes you see a picture in your head, and when people say â€œa poem is a picture in wordsâ€ thatâ€™s what theyâ€™re talking about. Is it true? Is a poem is a picture in words? Yes, but itâ€™s like saying that a race car is a vehicle with wheels, which is also true, but if thatâ€™s all you know about race cars, youâ€™re pretty much in the dark. So a poem is a picture in words, but thatâ€™s not all it is, and when we leave out the rest of what a poem is, we end up with a bunch really boring poems. A poetry culture built on a foundation of boring poems is a culture that will be ignored by the very human beings for whom we write the poetry, the very people who desperately need poetry in their lives, people who would love the poetry if weâ€™d only give them poems that did interesting stuff in addition to being â€œpictures in words.â€
So what kind of interesting stuff should a poem contain? The stuff that forms the basic elements of a story: language that produces pictures with actions that result in conflict and that produce emotion. Itâ€™s the essence of what we humans find interesting, the stuff with the power to capture the hearts of a generation of potential poetry lovers. (For a discussion of how this works, see When I Write a Poem, Section C, Story.)
Misconception Number 2: â€œGood poetry must be difficult to understand.â€
People donâ€™t usually say this out loud, but itâ€™s amazing how many think it. The assumption is that a poem written in simple, easily understood language cannot possibly be great art. These people tend to overlook the deeper meaning often imbedded in otherwise simple language. Itâ€™s almost as though, because a poem is accessible at a very low threshold, they assume thatâ€™s all there is to it and fail to look for the rich multiple levels of communication that often lie just beneath the surface. And, for the most part, itâ€™s probably not their fault.
In Hans Christian Andersenâ€™s The Emperorâ€™s New Clothes a pair of charlatans use intimidation to manipulate an entire kingdom. Having been told that only the incompetent fools of the kingdom will not be able to see the â€œmagicâ€ cloth, everyone, including the emperor, pretends to see it. In much the same way, contemporary poetry readers have been sold the ridiculous idea that itâ€™s our own fault if we donâ€™t understand a poem.
In his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra Friedrich Nietzsche characterizes some poets as â€œshallow seasâ€ who â€œmuddle their water that it may seem deep.â€ In 1891, when Nietzsche wrote those words, he could not have known how prophetic his statement would seem in light of the poetic output of the 20th Century, a veritable cornucopia of bad poetry, bad not because itâ€™s difficult to understand, but because it makes itself difficult to understand as a mask to hid itâ€™s lack of artistic power.
The essence of great poetry is what Iâ€™ve come to call the metaphorical lift. Itâ€™s what happens when a poem communicates a large universal in language that depicts a small particular. This may occur in poems are very difficult to understand, and it may occur in poems that are very easy to understand, and it is often the case that the very simplicity of the poetic particular heightens the power of its metaphorical statement.
Hereâ€™s a rule of thumb. If youâ€™re a pretty smart person, and you read a poem several times, and you work a bit at understanding it, and after all that you have no idea what the poet is talking about, itâ€™s probably not your fault.
Misconception Number 3: â€œFunny poetry is light verse and can never be great art.â€
Iâ€™m especially sensitive about this one for three reasons. Number one, I love to write funny poems. Number two, I think humor is the most powerful of all literary devices. And number three, itâ€™s really-really-really hard to do, much harder than writing tragedy.
So hereâ€™s what people say. If it funny itâ€™s only light verse, not serious poetry. This is patently ridiculous. If you doubt that humor can be serious, go back and take a quick look at the dark-comics of the 20th Century, guys like Sam Kinison and George Carlin and the more recent Louis Blackâ€”very funny, extremely dark, and always dead serious.
So if itâ€™s so obvious that humor can be serious, why the literary prejudice against funny poetry? Well, Iâ€™m going to hang this one on Aristotle himself. In The Poetics, Aristotle explains to future generations that tragedy, because of its ability to produce catharsis, is the highest form of the poetic art. Aristotle said this, I think, because he was a miserable dog with absolutely no sense of humor. There he was in the ancient city of Athens, a Greek perceived by his fellow â€¨Greeks as a traitor for his loyalty to the Macedonian Alexander the Great, suffering daily public castigation by no less an orator than Demosthenes himself, while Alexander, his former student turned master, is off conquering world, turning himself into a god, and executing anyone who denies his divinity, including Callisthenes, Aristotleâ€™s great-nephew. Can you imagine trying to get a laugh out of a room full of Aristotles.
Alright, I admit itâ€”I have no clue as to the source of our literary prejudice against humor. Maybe itâ€™s like Umberto Eco has it in his novel The Name of the Rose, where medieval monks suppress a philosophical treatment of humor because of its corrosive effect on respect for authority. In any case, humor is very powerful stuff. The great novelists use it. The great playwrights use it. The great essayists use it. The great rhetoricians wallow in it. Why shouldnâ€™t poets get in on the action?