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The Problem With Poetry

I just read another problem with poetry article. There are lots of them around because… well I don’t really know why. There is no problem with poetry. Poetry is just fine. There might be a problem with you — if you are one of the people I have personally met asking the question then my answer is probably that “You are stupid and lazy.” You want there to be some spigot somewhere which dispenses your particular favorite kind of aesthetic experience, and that does not and never will exist — get over it.

I have found a great deal of poetry that I like in the world — and I don’t mean Seamus Heany and Yusef Komunyakaa– who are both utterly brilliant and make me cry with jealousy whenever I read them.

I have found a great deal of first rate poetry handwritten in notebooks of individuals who go to little poetry readings around the country. There are thousands of those readings — most of them attended irregularly by 5-7 people. You might think that is a problem, they mostly don’t. Most of them have no aspiration to publish. Most of them don’t teach. The best poets I have met have been a cab driver, a guy on SSI for a basically fake mental illness, a clerk at a small independent bookstore, and a couple of mooches who lived off family or girlfriends. (I am thinking of specific individuals not categories.) The problem with the people who write “The problem with poetry.” articles is that they think in categories.

There is a problem with poetry magazines — they are mostly filled with crap. But that is the fault of the magazine editors. I saw enough good poetry in 4 years of looking to maybe fill 2 magazines. The magazines would have not appealed to any one demographic, and would not have been able to get advertising. Most of the poems would have been a single poem taken from a poet who had 100 other pieces. Most of the people would not have asked for any money to publish them.

These are not constraints that lead to a successful literary magazine.

The problem with poetry is that poetry is hard. A good poet will write 2 or 3 great poems in his life time. A great poet may write 10 – 15. If you want to be a good poet, prepare yourself for a life of heartbreak and a few moments of an indescribable ecstasy when you find a secret or two. If you want to read good poetry be prepared to spend your life thinking about why “that poem” the one you are reading now, didn’t work. Ask the question over and over again — stop being so generous. Stop pretending to like poems because they are by female writers, or black writers, or writers who like the same people you like and so remind you of yourself. Stop making it political, above all stop making it about yourself. 999 out of 1000 poems will leave you flat. If you ever want to find the good ones you have to ask yourself each time “Why?” you have to read each bad poem 5 times and ask yourself “Why?”

In that way you will become less stupid (first you must choose not to be lazy, and over time you will become less stupid because of that first choice.)

And then chance will start to bring you good poems.

Poetry is alive and well, right where it has always been — stop asking about it, start asking what you can do to deserve it.

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September 16, 2008 - Posted by | Poems

1 Comment »

  1. Ohhh… I found an excellent poetry site on the web!

    http://linebreak.org/

    Comment by James D. Newman | November 13, 2008 | Reply


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