Demystifying Poetry

by ericaeller


It’s the tail-end of poetry month and I’ve decided to go off on a rant about poetry discourse. In America, people often assume that poetry can’t possibly be popular. Maybe if they came to Turkey, they’d change their minds. Here, people graffiti the walls with lines of Nazim Hikmet. But a shift is taking place in and around America. Just north of the border, Canada’s Rupi Kaur has shown us how huge Instagram followings for poetry can lead to book contracts. We also live in an era when pop-icons can hand-pick their own poets. Beyoncé collaborated with poet Warsan Shire to include spoken lines of poetry throughout her album Lemonade. Suddenly, it’s as if poetry can become something more than an isolated bookish art. Poetry loves new media, poetry loves sound recording, poetry loves the stage.

This month, year, decade, I’ve come across some efforts to legitimize poetry. Joshua Johnson’s podcast 1A recently aired a segment titled, “How do you know if a poem is good?” He invited guests Kevin Young, the poetry editor for the New Yorker, Tracy K. Smith, the 22nd U.S. Poet Laureate, Matthew Zapruder, the editor for poetry publisher Wave Books, and Danez Smith, the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry winner to discuss.

No, a love of poetry is not akin to an odd fetish or a closeted drug addiction.

The questions were framed as if to give rise to a series of confessions: Who was your first? What got you into it? Why do you like this? Teetering towards … Aren’t you embarrassed by it? No, a love of poetry is not akin to an odd fetish or a closeted drug addiction. We don’t have to stigmatize it as such. We don’t have to hide it, nor are we obligated to represent all readers of poetry, when it is a highly personal form of art. I’ll be the first to admit it: I like poetry. Specifically, I like my own taste in poetry. Just like music, this is not a homogeneous art.

There’s a sense that poetry is not taught correctly and that if it were to be taught correctly, it would miraculously become popular. So typical. Blame the teacher. Can you tell I was a teacher? In the podcast, the guests suggest that teachers have kept poetry removed from our daily lives, forgetting that we use lines of poetry at funerals and weddings. Do we, though? The last few weddings I attended mostly involved impromptu toasts or roasts. If poetry classes were designed with the assumption that all of the students would become future poets, the same way engineering teachers see their students as future engineers, these doubts towards its relevance might disappear. But we can’t blame this on the teachers themselves. They are underpaid, overworked. No brilliant insider’s view of an “everyday” style of teaching poetry is any less offensive than an average teacher’s assumption that poetry might actually be removed from people’s daily lives. Developing a clever strand of poetry-lite is just condescending.

When prodded about the merit of poetry for laypersons, Tracy K. Smith says people simply have to “feel” poems to get them. But she follows this up with a more thorough explanation: it involves listening to the sounds of words, identifying how the poet used them, and connecting to their meaning. Kevin Young defended his role at the New Yorker, which Johnson calls an “upper-echelon” establishment, by saying that he would read the New Yorker poems in Kansas as a child. He calls the New Yorker (surprisingly) “democratic.” These are cases in the podcast when the poets didn’t want to bite on the bait. At least Young later asserts that we do bring our own framework to poetry when we identify its meaning. Going one step further, this suggests that a highly developed reader like Young will likely have a different impression of a poem than a non-reader of poetry. It is, to an extent, an acquired taste.

I don’t think poetry has to be “democratic” for people to like it. Zapruder’s comment that there’s a poem for everyone made sense to me because it implied that such a poem is NOT a poem for everyone else. I like Emily Dickinson’s riddles. I like Susan Howe’s esoteric cut-ups of Puritan speech morphology. I also like the biting decolonizing polemics of Amiri Baraka’s rhythmic poems. These are filled with clever wit and wordplay, and I like finding their layers of meaning. I didn’t attend an ivy-league university. That wasn’t a pre-requisite for liking poetry.

Poetry asks us to tune in with our mental powers, just as much as our feelings. We are linguistic creatures, and poetry recognizes this aspect of our nature. Poetry is a mixture of oral and written forms. It stands in this in-between zone of contemporaneous performance and studied composition. It combines high and low diction. It is the parasitic jester of all verbal and linguistic possibilities in the world. It is not a static art form, and it cannot be codified, either. Poetry is a malleable beast.

Intellectualism is not a crime!

Matthew Zapruder’s recent book, Why Poetry, also takes on the challenge to demystify poetry. I like that he refutes the notion that poems deceive. Again, I found myself adding a personal addendum to his point. It is as if he’s saying: poems don’t deceive; straight-talking politicians do. He also describes an in-between dreamlike state induced by poems, and he celebrates their material form, as language. Although its premise involves making poetry accessible to lay-readers, the entire book was like a easy-going fireside chat of the very same lectures on poetry that emphasize rhyme, meter, syllable stresses, metaphor, image, enjambment, etc, that these poets are blaming for “elitism.” Why can’t we just admit that poets are elitist in a sense, and that intellectualism is not a crime!

I don’t see why we’re picking a fight with the many possible tools that comprise the craft anyway, just to make the art more easy to approach or digest. These are tools that have developed over time, and just because they involve unfamiliar terminology, like “iambic pentameter,” doesn’t mean we have to negate their worth. Poetry offers a centuries-old tradition that may carry a lot of academic baggage, but it is not sealed off from time. I think the most important thing to emphasize when “demystifying poetry” is that it is a thriving art with longstanding traditions in all parts of the world, and the traditions and innovations of poetry are still unfolding. Poetry doesn’t belong to the dead, it belongs to the living.