Friday, July 27, 2007

More Poetry for the Masses

I'll be the first one to admit that the people who tend to admire poetry the most are also poets themselves. Sometimes a clever metaphor or allusion is lost on those who are not used to reading poetry. Poetry tends to be more concise, to say more with fewer words. Like eating Campbell's condensed soup straight from the can, poetry can be a little strong for many palates. From my high school students, to my parents, to even my wife, poetry is not something that is usually read. It wasn't always that way, though. At one time, poetry was included in newspapers and popular magazines. Many poets became household names, such as the Fireside Poets of the 19th century, or such poets as Robert Frost or Maya Angelou. I wonder, though, if the fault lies entirely with the modern, technology-savy-yet-unliterate average Joe or possibly with poets themselves.

In an essay written by John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation, entitled "American Poetry in the New Century," Barr declared, "American poetry is ready for something new because our poets have been writing in the same way for a long time now. There is fatigue, something stagnant about poetry being written today." Poetry has been largely absent from public life, whether the classroom, bookstore, newspaper, or mainstream media, they all have "a morale problem," that poems are written only with other poets in mind. For that reason, according to Barr, they do not sell. He thinks poets need to write poetry that is more robust, resonant, and above all, entertaining. In one section of the essay entitled, "Live Broadly, Write Boldly," he urged poets to be like Hemingway and seek experience outside of the poetry circles or academia establishments. Take a safari, run with the bulls, go marlin fishing, just get out and experience life. That is what he believes the public will connect with -- real life.

I think Billy Collins is such a successful poet (having sold over 500,000 books of poetry) because of this, besides the fact that he is good at what he does. He comes to the reader unpretentious with poems about everyday occurences that end up being slightly more than that, and leaves us with something understandable to think about. I am no Billy Collins (watch him to become a household name someday), but I strive in my own writing to appeal not just to the poet but to anybody willing to take the time to read a poem. Am I successful in this? I think the jury is still deliberating on that.

Source: Goodyear, Dana. "The Moneyed Muse." The New Yorker. February 19 & 26, 2007. 122-135.

1 comment:

Mike said...

You know, I have readers on both sides of the street for my poetry. The Everyman and the polished, punishing poets as well.

It has taken me years to develop what I consider a "voice". It is a Siren's Song to some and fingernails on a chalkboard to others. lol Oh well, you can't please all of the people all of the time and all of that.

I have a friend, an excellent writer and poet from Iowa. When I grow up, I wanna write just like her. My poetry drives her to the point of almost requiring emergency medical attention. She demands that everything be absolutely concise. Well, maybe. But sometimes I like a little butter and jelly on my plain, white bread.

While I agree that poetry should be concise, there is point in there where it becomes overkill; the whole purpose and intent is lost. I don't think that poetry should be required to be short on words to be considered good. But you need to convey the WHOLE message you want in a concise way, not make the poem short to comform to some "rule".

Most of what I consider my best poetic efforts are in the form of narrative poems. They are not any longer or worder than is required to tell the WHOLE message, but I will not cripple them by omitting the necessary.

If there is one thing I believe, it is this. You have to write with a specific audience in mind. I'm not saying to limit yourself to one or a handfull of audiences, but know who this piece is for and write it to them! People outside of the target audience may or may not like it. But if you try to write poetry about rural life in the language of Wall Street, good luck. If you are writing poetry about rural life why would it even matter if a Wall Street reader likes it or not? He will probably never see it because it will almost never be where he reads.

Do what you are good at and the goodies will follow. I know when I have tried to alter my style and voice to meet the "norms" of the craft, I lose my readers quickly. Notice the operative word there, "MY" readers. In a nutshell, I say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." rofl