29 Apr

Journey to Poetry

Posted in Craft, Poetry

Today Lady Glamis at Literary Lab posted a follow-up to her poetry discussion and it got me thinking about what it is that I love about poetry and why some of it resonates with me and some of it doesn’t.  In other words, why did I go from having such a visceral hatred of poetry to suddenly rediscovering its beauty.  Let me sum it up.

It’s not that I dislike poetry, I just dislike bad poetry.

Let me backtrack a little bit.  For starters, I should be the last person to complain about bad poetry because I was a purveyor of bad poetry myself, once upon a time.  When I was a teenager I was obsessed with poetry–in particular sonnets.  I scribbled hundreds of terrible sonnets in the margins of my textbooks, all of the poems about how unjust the world was and how misunderstood I was.  Of course, at the time, I thought they were seriously deep, but now I’m glad those textbooks have long since been recycled.  To tell the truth, writing poetry was my way of passing the time during boring classes and looking back, while the fruit of all this writing was pretty awful, at least it kept my brain working.

My resistance to poetry began when I started taking writing classes.  The tricky thing about poetry is that there are so few words and language is boiled down to its barest essentials so when it’s good, it can be very very good, but when it’s bad it’s horrid.  This makes poetry especially challenging to discuss in a workshop setting.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in the workshop process; I think everyone should be free to submit rough, messy drafts in a workshop and learn to make them better.

The trouble with poetry began in one of the classes I took some years ago, where I sensed a certain defensiveness around the poetry submissions that I didn’t get when reading fiction pieces.  It was as though everyone in the class would back away in deference.  After all, this wasn’t fiction, it was poetry and poetry was personal so who were we to critique it?  And when I raised my hand and said “Um… I’m sorry, but I just don’t get what the poem’s trying to say” the class struck me down so fast I thought I hallucinated the whole thing.

Thing is, as a result of repeated exposure to less-than-wonderful poetry, for several years I assumed that the only reason I didn’t “get” these poems was because I was too dumb.  Then, I discovered Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius (which I reviewed earlier this month) and this book is in large part responsible for my change of heart regarding poetry.  Suddenly, I realized that I wasn’t too dumb and I could make sense of poetry if I really tried.  Better yet, I enjoy it even if I didn’t understand it completely and simply relish in the language.  The best part was, I could even try my hand at it and write some poems of my own.

And here, of course, was where the real journey began.

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