I wish I liked poetry. But I don’t.
I understand why I should like poetry: condensed thought, rich with imagery, a purity of form.
My friend at university described it as: a thought, distilled until there is nothing left but what is necessary to perfectly express it.
I like that. That definition appeals to me.
Poems, however, do not.
I understand the adoration among literary types; why they include their favourites in long-form work. It’s not to show off (as I had cynically assumed in my youth), but because they found genuine and visceral inspiration within those lines. Inspiration that I am unable to draw upon. That upsets me.
I often thought I’d have to incorporate a poem into a novel to be considered a serious writer – but, of course, that would mean reading poems. And I honestly can’t think of anything worse.
I am sure many among you will be disappointed in me. I attract a writerly bunch to the pages of this humble blog, many of whom pour their souls into poetry, and bear it to the world. I am not for one moment lambasting their art. This is not a cry of disdain, but a yell of jealousy.
I really do wish I liked poetry. Poets, you have my admiration.
This art is fine, I guess
Alas! My relationship with poetry is the same as my appreciation for fine art – there’s a barrier of perception erected around revered works, and a supposition of emotional intelligence with which to divine the intentions of the artist. This is my grievance; either I glean meaning from the work, and therefore believe it obvious or trite; or I cannot fathom the obfuscated metaphor to turn it from abstract to idea. In my frustrated ignorance, I grow weary of the piece, or the artist, or the form, and believe them all pretentious.
That last word – pretentious – is an interesting one, for it often reveals more of its user than those it is intended to deride. I recall seeing an art installation through a shop window in Buenes Aires many years ago; it was a wall of breeze blocks about two metres long, but arranged as though a wrecking ball had dashed it across the gallery floor. I laughed. Breaking walls down with your art, are we? I thought, with pompous cynicism. Metaphor manifest! Did they really come up with that, and not once stop to think: Is this not a bit on the nose?
I could not imagine at the time creating something more lazy and facile, besides a sculpture of a man crying bestride a spilled carton of milk; or a stone with two sets of birds’ feet sticking out like the Wicked Witches; or a painting of a dictionary, whose one thousand strokes, when inspected in greater detail, are revealed not as brush strokes, but words! Gadzooks! A picture crushes a thousand birds with one spilled milk carton.
Ugh – but I reel from that tone. It’s ugly. For in that squeal of mirth, pretention lies, like the cackle of a failing teacher, laughing at the dreams of those they deem the least gifted. “A doctor, James? Ha! A comedian more like! And what about you Bethany – not a hairdresser? Or a waitress? What’s that? An archaeologist? Ha! I shall eagerly anticipate your appearance on The Only Time Team Is Essex!”
So, either I am the pretentious actor in this macabre play, or I am the emotionally illiterate drone, too addled by the internet to comprehend a creator’s masterful vision.
To help, I tend to only look upon artwork that has a detailed plaque against it. In other words: clues. If I am stood before a twelve-foot sculpture of a woman made of rotting plums holding aloft a melting Bible and a white-rimmed fedora, I want at least a name to thrust me down the right track. Is this post-feminist anti-intellectualism? A critique of agro-agri-food practices? An homage to Michael Jackson (well known for his fondness of plums)?
I used to think art was in the eye of the beholder, but it’s not. It was created to coax some ethereal response from its onlookers, and if it fails to do that – with me specifically – is it then shit? Has it failed?
Or am I the failure, for not perceiving its glorious message?
So it goes with poetry. Too often I come a cropper amid the arbitrary breaks of a stanza, lost in obtuse language, broken syntax, ruptured grammar. Thick layers of meaning envelope this nugget of knowledge on the page, and I am at a loss to peal each back, for as I do, I strip away what it once was – an emotional incitement. Good poetry should evoke something besides frustration.
A novel approach
Granted, my exposure to poetry is almost exclusively from the pages of a novel, and is therefore steeped in context, being both preceded by introduction and followed by reflection. I have never, lamentably, read a book of poetry. My god – to think not only does it happen, but enough for books to be printed and distributed and sold, and at no point in the process is anyone duped as to the book’s contents. It says it on the cover, in the blurb, and upon every page with nary a paragraph to be seen. A book of poems.
God, I really do wish I like poetry. I really do. Pour that plunderous language into a paragraph and I will drink as at a spring of immortality. Finish sentences with punctuation, and I’ll bite my knuckle with repressed intoxication. Take me on a journey upon which I have little choice but to feel as you felt in the telling of it; make your thoughts become mine, your eyes my vision, your taste my desire, your touch, my sensation. Let me hear it, as though with eyes closed I could just as well be there.
That is the connection I crave between writer and reader. And with subtlety and guile you’ll hold my hand so softly I’ll wonder how I came to be in such a place, almost of my own free will, observing my influenced imagination as though it were my own.
What a trip! And such an admirable aspiration. I still doubt my ability to ever reach such dizzying splendour. But I will endeavour to crest that impossible peak, and I will know I have succeeded when that first reader says to me: I fucking get you, man.
Take me with you
An author scales a mountain, quarries a path around its slopes to the summit, and then promptly disappears. A reader follows that path, and enjoys great satisfaction in discovering a view so unique it makes them believe they themselves blazed that trail.
Conversely, a poet describes a rock, or a soul, or a whisper, found or sensed upon the path, and directs your attention to its glistening edge, or ethereal divinity, or hushed delivereance, as though there is nothing else besides. And after inspection, the poet stands expectantly, hands on hips, awaiting your epiphany with impatience. Tell me what you think it means, sonny. He inhales on his liquorice-paper cigarillo.
How does it make you feel?