Why do people find it so easy to say that they don’t read poetry? After all, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t like music, though they’d clarify what they enjoy, such as jazz, classical, or rock. And within those categories, they’d break it down further to get to the style they really groove on. Jazz started with ragtime and Dixieland, then evolved into swing, bebop, and cool, hard bop, free jazz and fusion, a history I vaguely understand as an entry level fan. And forget about what I once dismissed as disco or club music that spun off into house, techno, ambient, rave, trance, industrial, and trip hop. Trip hop? How could you not be curious about music called trip hop? Alas, I lost the thread of this labeling game back in the early 1980s when No Wave was opposed to New Wave. But I must say that all these labels sound fun. Acid jazz? Why not? Which brings us back to that deadly word poetry. Why stick with a category people hate? And why should they like it when we make no effort to distinguish between Charles Bukowski and John Ashbery? It’s time for us to take new labels and get out of the poetry ghetto.
Charles Harper Webb once published an essay pointing out the mess of contemporary poetry which is filled with competing schools and contradictions. Here are the labels he listed: “Neo-beat, meat, academic, street, slam, formalist, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, experimental, stand up, stoogist, imagist, deep imagist, avant-garde, prose, post-structuralist, modern, High Modern, postmodern, and post-postmodern.” Meat poetry? Stoogist? Those two I’m going to google. Behind these divergent styles are competing beliefs about what poetry should be. Webb summarized sixty two fundamental principles that inform poetry today, many of which directly refute another. “Poetry should be written in straightforward language, clearly and concisely saying what it means. It should be written in the language people actually use, unencumbered by obscure allusion or references. Nothing should be written in a poem which a person could not conceivably say in a conversation.” Vs. “Poetry is not everyday speech, but language set apart. The set-apartness may be expressed through poetic devices such as rhyme, meter, and erudite allusions, or by using language in nonstandard ways. Poetry should allow readers to savor elevated diction, or perhaps disjunctive sentences and indeterminate syntax. Or natural language should be crafted so as to make it special.”
Picking sides yet? Are you with Ashbery, Bukowski, or neither? When you attend your next concert you’ll know if you’ll hear a string quartet or a reggae fest. Why can’t poets better distinguish what we’re doing?
Judy Lechner once invited me to commute with her from Woodstock down to a weekly workshop at Poets House then temporarily located on lower Broadway. It wasn’t a workshop I would have picked, for it didn’t sound like my approach to writing, but with Judy as an ally I was willing to experiment. Sure enough, we did exercises that forced us out of our natural tendency for storytelling into composing poems out of words that had been chosen in ways that seemed arbitrary, even meaningless. For example, we translated a poem from a language we didn’t understand, which made us choose sound-alike or look-alike English words that that could easily border on gibberish when strung together. Being a narrative writer at heart, I didn’t find these exercises easy, but will admit to intriguing myself with some of the lines I created. That wasn’t my regular muse talking. There was a mystery coming out of these exercises that I hadn’t know I had in me. But ultimately I went back to my old ways. These exercise poems lacked emotional anchors I could return to months later. Instead, they became puzzles that lost their intrigue. Their ambiguities were not what I wanted to be known for. I’m not of the school that “the concept of ‘truth’” is “suspect.”
And Judy? She proved that not everybody who hates something turns into a ranter at a rally or on the radio. After the second or third week, she simply stopped coming and continued on her way of writing poems that are simple and heartfelt testimonials about what matters in her life, especially her love for her partner Allen Murphy and her fond memories of her Jewish immigrant ancestors. Her poems are based on affection, not word play. For years, she has been writing education materials for students and teachers, so she knows how to write simply without sacrificing nuance or intelligence. Having authored twenty four books for school libraries as paid work, she has now published her first poetry book, “for the bucket list,” she says, titled, The Moon Sings Back. What would I label it? Appreciations. Here’s one for Allen.
Just For You
Just for the lanky grace of your back
your quick smile and laughter
the bowed cello of your voice
for your forgiveness
easily and sweetly given,
I’m willing to sleep with earplugs
pick up socks, underwear, change
listen to Miles for the hundredth time
remember all your gigs
carry music stand, charts, and wires
drive you home on late night country roads
improvise dinner when exhausted
ignore clutter and double negatives.
Just for the refuge of your sheltering soul.