Unsubstantial Poetry and Academia

What I am planning to write about is something I have not entirely figured out. I say this as a person who has many outspoken opinions on differing things: backpacking (good – just not in Europe), ketchup (disgusting), bacon (delicious), coal trains (terrible), smoking cigarettes (should be illegal), etc. . . However this particular topic is one that I have spent a lot of time thinking about, and have not yet entirely figured it out. I probably never will. This post is a little bit of a ramble, so forgive me.

I know poetry is important. I know this because a week ago my uncle repeated Song of The Master and the Boatswain, verbatim at the dinner table, a poem he had memorized for a high school English class. One of my close friends, Elizabeth, retells a story, frequently, of preforming a beatbox version of Fire and Ice, with fellow waiters and waitress, and everyone that surrounded her, requested that she repeat it. Former students have made it abundantly clear to me that Phenomenal Women changed their lives.

I myself, do not know what I would do without The Lake Isle of Inissfree, The More Loving One, The Lady of Shalott, etc … I believe poetry is very capable of being a life altering thing, because I have seen it in the lives of those around me, be they poets, or film directors. I know that writing poetry is no longer a choice for me, it something I am compelled to do.

Before I went to graduate school, I had read very little modern poetry, and knew very few poets (even fewer my age). Most of my friends did not read poetry, and many from that part of my life, that I am still very close to, don’t. So what I do to them is a little bit of a mystery, which is fine, because often it is a mystery to me as well. I read a lot of modern poetry now, I know a lot of poets. I know a lot of good poets. Some who have been widely published, some who are not really in the practice of submitting. I know there are good contemporary poets out there. However even with many of these poets that I enjoy, and follow, I could not say that there poems have effected my life, or that their lines have embedded into my days.

I am always shocked when looking through journals to submit to, how many of the poems I am looking at seem to be entirely devoted to language, or spacing. In graduate school I became leery of confessional poems, but sometimes after going through a journal relying so intensely on spacing, obscure words, or an idea based on idea, based on a painting, based on a book, that was never published, by a obscure foreign author, a nice old fashioned confessional seems refreshing.

I do not understand this creation of things that do not create strong images, ideas, do not tell a story, do not allude to something interesting, they seem empty, like shrines to language. Robert Haas, a poet whose work I enjoy and respect, has very championed someone’s work who to me epitomizes this idea of a language shrine. Sometimes I can enjoy these poems for a moment, but they always leave me empty, dust filled.

I taught a number of Billy Collins poems to one of my classes last year. Billy Collins is a poet frequently mocked in grad school, and one whose work I don’t particularly enjoy, but who clearly explores ideas in a way that connects, often through humor, to the reader. This is something we, as writers are not often encouraged to do in workshops. People always comment on the language, line breaks, which lines work, and which ones don’t, but the content is rarely mentioned (There are exceptions to this rule – Laure-Anne Bosselaar and Tom Lux, greatly encourage the discussion of content). This is a problem. This makes the poem more about language then ideas and image, which is often where I think the crux of the poem lies.

Often, academia breeds meaningless in poems. Not always, there are clear exceptions to this, but I feel like it is a growing problem. I have discovered that I often know if someone has attended an MFA and sometimes even which MFA program it was, based on reading a few poems in a journal. This is not a good thing.

Other types of writers often think about their audience. In fiction workshops the intended audience is discussed regularly. In poetry workshops and among many poets, when an audience is discussed it is usually described, or assumed to be an audience exclusively of poets. Poets reading poets, poets supporting other poets, but not readers who are not poets, not readers who are just readers. I have even heard poets make bold statements about their poems not being intended for non poets. They use a vocabulary that excludes readers that do not have previous experience with contemporary poetry.

When people talk about why modern poetry is often sidelined in North America, I think about the fact that poet’s are not writing for others any more. They are writing for each other, which is fine, as long as that is a flexible term, one that can open up and embrace strangers. Can be welcoming to fiction readers and plumbers and people who might have read all of Nicholas Sparks works. I want to be open to that. I also want to write poems that take time, that have layers, but I know that given time, or the write start, almost anyone is capable of exploring layers, of enjoying them, of feeling satisfied by “solving” part of a poem that used to hold a mystery from them.

I know I veered into generalizations here, and many of my thoughts might need refining, but I wanted to open this up, as a discussion of sorts. I am clearly very thankful for my MFA experience and I love Sarah Lawrence College and many of the poets and people I met there. My manuscript about the victims of Ted Bundy would not have been possible without Stephen Conner’s excellent class. I would not be the poet and person that I am without them, however in my experience SLC is the kind of college that encourages questioning.  I look forward to hearing peoples thoughts, however they want to share them.


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