Wednesday, October 16, 2013

5 Reasons to Oppose Not Reading Poetry (And Other Convoluted near Sentences)

When people say, "I've told you fifty times," / They mean to scold, and very often do; / When poets say, "I've written fifty rhymes," / They make you dread that they'll recite them too." -- Byron

Lately I’ve been dipping my toes back into the river of poetry.  It only took Seamus Heaney dying to get me back into verse.  No small fee.

I realize that poetry is not everybody’s thing, considering the dismal sales of poetry books and the somewhat hostile, somewhat fearful reaction the sublime art seems to generate.  (Example by way of a quick story: I review books from time to time, usually penning quick responses as opposed to long pieces of criticism, much to the detriment of book culture.  I got an email recently that invited the regular reviewers to choose a book from the soon-to-be-released pile.  One of the books was described with a catch: “This is poetry.”  The warning struck me as hilarious.  Even book reviewers—so-called readers of literature—had to be told that here there be poems.  EGADS! )

Why the resistance to poetry?  For me, it has to do with grad school and the time I spent post-grad as a volunteer reader for a literary journal.  The bombardment of poems I sifted through was enough to depress me beyond belief and send me running away from broken lines.  Three years, give or take, since I picked a book of poems or tried to write one of my own. 

My own reasons are my own reasons, but what are yours?  Well, if you’re like many others, you might have a reason along the lines of:

1.       So much poetry is crap.
A valid criticism, to be fucking sure, but let’s take a closer look at that.  Most of what passes for entertainment is crap.  The Hollywood machine, the crumbling music industry, even TV in this golden age of television pumps out a consistent stream of raw sewage.  Why do expect poetry to be better? 

Sure, a lot of poetry is crap.  I agree 100%, but there are some gems among the dung heap.  It’s your job to look for them. 

Think of it this way: most of the music on the radio is total crap.  I’m not just thinking of the current pop idols, those auto-tuned teenaged Barbie dolls.  All of it.  Classic rock radio is full of crap.  (Fuck Bob Dylan.)  But you have this feature on your car stereo called “scan” that allows you to start at one end and follow through to the opposite in the hope that you might land on something worth hearing.  And how many times do you start all over?  How often do you wade through the muck before landing on a song worth your time?  Or do you settle for the least offensive of the many aural offenses? 

You ought to do the same with all forms of art, including poetry.  There’s good out there.  Go find it.  Don’t let the dry academic word jumbles or platitude spouting hacks get you down.

2.      It’s tough to read.

This is a good thing.  Why should reading always be easy?  Why should anything?  Okay, sometimes we need downtime, so-called brainless fun.  I'm not preaching against that, but the advocates of mindless entertainment prop up the idea of necessary distraction as if it were a virtue.  Shutting off should be a small part of our experience, not a daily sacrament. 

This is not to say that reading should be a chore.  No, but we tend to equate all poetry with the kind that challenges and fails to compensate while there's a lot more out there that requires some work on the part of the reader but offers rewards along the way. 

3.      It’s so old!
Yes, but so is sex, and that sure hasn’t waned in popularity. 

4.      I don’t get it.
This is a complaint I’m very aware of and sympathetic to.  Still... I don’t get a lot of poetry, or a lot of works of art.  But so what?  That doesn’t always diminish my enjoyment or, at the very least, engagement.  Can anyone tell me exactly what happens at the end of Once Upon a Time in America?  Or can someone explain to me what the song “Whiter Shade of Pale” means?  I mean, really break down every line and give me a clear, precise meaning.  Or what about the popular movie Inception?  Did that not fuck you up a little?  And what about that Pulp Fiction movie you all seem to love so much.  What was in the briefcase?  Do you know for sure?  Does it matter? 

No.  It doesn’t matter.  There are acceptable levels of mystery and confusion that art asks us to live with.  And that’s often a good thing.  The answers tend to be less interesting than the questions.

I mean, did you see the director’s cut of Donnie Darko?  I didn’t because I heard enough about it to know that I didn’t want my love of the movie ruined.  The original theatrical release was odd and mysterious and asked that the viewer bring something to the experience.  The director’s cut, from what I’m told, laid all the answers out and killed the fun.

Another example:  Roger Ebert, when reviewing 2001: A Space Odyssey, quoted E.E. Cummings: “I’d rather learn from one bird how not to sing than try to teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.”  The idea being that the film was a mystery that he was happy to never solve.  Though he’d surely try, he was not about to engage in the foolhardy act of teaching ten thousand stars to stop their dazzling movement.  Let them do what they do and marvel at their doing. 

When the sequel was released in 1984, Ebert returned to the quote and said that 2010: The Year We Make Contact tried to teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.  Most of us have forgotten about the second film, but no one who watches the first will likely ever forget it (be it out of awe or frustration). 
5.      I have no time.
Bullshit.  You have plenty of time.  You merely choose to fill it with other activities, some quite worthwhile (family, food, fornication), some less (Facebook, How I Met Your Mother), some wasteful (listening to/thinking about Miley Cyrus). Prioritize, damn it.

Okay, that ought to hold ya.