I have a confession to make.
I don’t really like poetry.
This may not seem like a big deal thing to say, but it’s a remarkably unfashionable opinion in a lot of the scholarly/artistic circles here.
I used to really like poetry. I took classes on it and I worked really hard, and I read and read. I earned high marks in those classes. I wrote poetry, and I wrote papers about poetry.
I had a teacher in high school, the only one of many high school teachers whose name I remember. There are a lot of stories and memories about this guy, but he really liked poetry. He defined it thus: the ultimate distillation of language. This meant that no word was included unless it served the larger work.
This was something that I took to heart, but it’s something that set a very high bar for poetry, and once he said it, and the more I read, the more poetry lost its charm.
Most poetry, in my opinion, is just prose that’s been trimmed up like a show poodle, not to support the impact and the meaning of the poem, but for the purposes of aesthetics. To look sexy on the page, or to sound smart. And it’s parlor tricks, really. With just a couple of good tricks up your sleeve, you can make anything look or sound like a poem. It’s a parlor trick. That’s what haiku is… it’s a series of rules through which you can make almost anything sound poetic.
Not all poetry is like this. I know good poets. I had a man recite a lovely poem for me. I even sometimes write poetry, though most of it is unremarkable. But most of it is chicanery; worse, it’s self-serving chicanery.
This is a difficult and complicated thing for me to try to explain, so let me provide you with an example.
This is an essay by Hunter S Thompson. It was published in Songs of the Doomed. The reason I have included a video of it as read by the author rather than excerpting or reproducing it is because I want you to listen to it. This BEGS to be listened to.
You know why?
Because it’s better poetry than eighty or ninety percent of the poetry that is actually called poetry. And it’s prose. It’s paragraphs of text. But the language dances; it is honest, and there are no tricks here. Just the words that were needed to say what the author wanted to communicate. It is not elegant, it is not pretty. But it is deliriously evocative, and sensuous in a kind of a turbulent way. Thompson is able to make the reader feel the fear and the heat and the strangeness of it all; the mad pressure of an electrical storm, and the thickness of the air. Thompson may be renowned as a drug-addled trouble-maker, but do not mistake it… he was an incredible writer.
I love this. I love it. I luxuriate in it. Sometimes it will rattle around in my head all day. The rough, mad stiltedness of it, its wildness and its truth. Its lack of pretension.
And this is how I want to write. I want to write words of crazed and unpolished beauty. I want to write truth and madness. And I don’t ever want to care if it’s pretty or graceful or makes me sound smart. I want the rhythm of the words to move like drums in the forest and not like the step of a tired mule. And I want to do it honestly.
And I want to reiterate, I don’t think all poetry is bad. The one that was recited to me by a lovely man was beautiful, and I loved it in the way that one might love a strange colored stone… look at this, look at how beautiful and perfect it is, see how lucky I am to be here to experience this. And though I don’t remember the poem, I remember the feeling of it, the sensation of my eyes glowing and the quiet sound of his voice and the strange cocoon it had wrapped around me.
This is the power that truly wonderful poetry has.
I know a different man who is an exceptionally talented poet, who tours all around the country. I have heard him read and while he has pieces that I like more than some of his others, there is not one single thing that I’ve heard him read that I haven’t liked.
And I’ve even written poetry. It’s not great; I’m not talented at it, and what I write that I like usually comes out in a long, smooth flow of words, completely naturally and without resistance or struggle. The harder I work on something, the worse it is. The worse it is, of course, the more I work on it, and it winds up being a terrible inward collapse. Here’s an example of something I’ve written recently. It’s not great. It’s not even very good. And it’s pretty trite. But it’s honest.
I do feel that poetry is an important exercise for any writer, regardless of whether you are a poet or not. You learn things about language and about the written word from studying and writing poetry that you just cannot learn any other way. Reading a good poem out loud and understanding why it was made the way it was made can change your prose for the better, with almost no work.
And when poetry is good, it can move the unmovable.
But remember. No matter how dainty it looks on the page, it is no better by its nature than is prose.