Thursday, January 09, 2014

Poetry doesn't have to be obscure!

I’m currently reading Best Australian Poems 2013. Every night when I get into bed, before I pick up my current novel, I open up BAP and read half a dozen poems. I do this with poetry a lot. I might have a Billy Collins or Ted Kooser collection handy, or Mary Oliver, or Maxine Kumin (some of my favourites). Or I might be trying out someone new. I don’t read poetry all the time – but sometimes I need that different, lyrical input into my heart and brain.

But this year’s BAP is annoying me. Here’s why. A few years ago, a friend went to a session on writing where Australian poet, Peter Rose, said, “A poet's job is to be as obscure as possible.” At the time, she and I discussed this proposition in depth and both of us disagreed with him (her blog post on it is here).
When I think about poetry I enjoy, and which gives me an immense amount of inspiration and food for thought, it is invariably poetry that is mostly understandable on a first reading. A really good poem always offers more, but if someone reads a poem and their response is “Huh?”, and they turn away from it, to me the poem has failed the reader.  Why would you deliberately want to exclude and alienate your readers? Why would you want to write a poem that pushes the reader away and makes them feel stupid?

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say they hate the poems published in the Saturday Age, I could fund a poetry publishing company! The Weekend Australian also publishes poetry, and it’s always accessible. Not always easy, but accessible. (And yes, the poetry editor is responsible for what is selected.) Once upon a time, Billy Collins was accused of writing poetry that was too “easy” to understand, as if that was some kind of crime. Then he became America’s Poet Laureate and some people had to eat their words.

While he was Poet Laureate, he created Poetry 180, a project whereby 180 poems were collected and put on the LoC website so that every day of high school, a teacher could read a poem to their class. Not all of the poems are readily accessible, but they were all chosen to offer something to their readers – high school students who might never have read a poem (even though they hear them in songs and rap probably every day). This is what a Poet Laureate is about – not making poetry so difficult that even fewer people read it, but giving old and new readers poems that sing to them, that offer them insight and inspiration and ideas.

So back to Best Australian Poems 2013. I am about halfway through, and already impatient. So many poems that feel meaningless, that are a conglomeration of words strung together to look clever but instead act like a wall between me and what the poem is about. I don’t ask for “easy” poems, but I do ask for poems that make sense (there, I said it). So many times I read a poem and thought – I wonder if the poet even knows what that’s about? In fact, I wanted to be able to sit them down and say, “OK, explain this poem to me, line by line.” 

As a writer, I know there are often parts of a poem that I can’t quite explain – a line or phrase here and there that comes in the creating and seems just right, all the same. But a whole poem like that? It just makes me shrug and turn the page. The SMH/Age reviewer, Andrew Reimer (who is a very good poetry reviewer), said this about BAP 2013: “But the purpose of many of these poems - as far as purposes may be discovered - lies elsewhere: in a world of abstraction, of random associations, sometimes merely in a world of typographical conceits. They do not yield sense in conventional discursive or grammatical terms.” He also used the word “impenetrable”. Full review here.

I’m sure for some poetry readers, this is all rubbish and they love BAP 2013, but to me it’s yet another reason for people (especially young people) to keep turning away from poetry and putting it into the “too hard/I don’t get it” basket. And honestly, another collection of “Australian classic poems” is likely to make me throw up. That won’t help either.

This week I tried an experiment on Facebook (borrowed from a piece in Publisher’s Weekly). I put a Billy Collins poem up as a post and said that if anyone clicked Like, I’d provide them with a poem to read. Each poem I then gave was a link to a poem on a website. Already, people are enjoying poems and poets they weren’t aware of, and sharing their own. It’s giving me ideas…


Sally Murphy said...

Amen, Sherryl. I love poetry of many different forms and levels of complexity, but feel that too often poets try to be clever rather than to connect. No poem should tell the reader what to think, but equally every poem should invite the reader to think. If that first thought is 'I don't get it' then it is a wasted opportunity.

Unknown said...

I completely agree. (I hope it's all right for me, a stranger, to jump into this discussion.) Poems that come across to me meaningfully in first or second reading have a strong chance of staying with me and enriching my life, and I feel grateful to those who wrote them.

Sherryl said...

I think "connect" is the right word, Sally. No connection, no reader, so what's the point?
The elite argument is that some readers will "get" the poem - which ones? Probably those academic poets always complaining about poor sales?

Sherryl said...

Please do join in, Elsa! Yes, I still remember the first poem that hit me like a hammer - one by Robert Graves that I read when I was about 16.