I once wrote a poem that began “the winter wind is marrying my daughter” though at the time I had no daughter. Poetry is often vain, silly, and yes, driven by seasons. Poetry is also a place for shit. Ask yourself: how many un-shitty poems did Wallace Stevens write? I say four: “Sunday Morning”; “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”; “The Snowman”; “The Idea of Order at Key West.”
A friend of mine once said the world is not harmed by bad poetry and he’s right. Let’s clear that up. And yes, by turns, the proliferation of bad poetry is the norm in any age. Add subjectivity, canon formation, academic taste makers, the yearnings of multiculturalism (I’m one of those yearners) and you’ve got a recipe for poetry custom.
Now before you start chasing me with a red hot poker let me be clear: one reason poetry can promulgate shit is because it’s infused with the gases of its era. Take from your shelf one of those old “Midland” poetry anthologies edited by the late Paul Engle and you’ll see page after page of rhymed offal, poems so bad that putting the book down you’ll want a Thorazine injection. It was the age of rhyme and meter, of irony, of poets emulating 16th century poetic conventions—British conventions. The anthologies purported to represent the best in American poetry in the middle of the last century. You’d never know there was a Whitman or Ginsberg or Dickinson or Elizabeth Bishop.
The tastemakers in every era love shit. And yet there are brave and steadfast publishers and editors who fight for fresh air. Poetry doesn’t need to stink. What makes it un-stinky? You see this isn’t going well. You probably want to stop reading right now.
Langston Hughes said: “writing is like travelling. It’s wonderful to go somewhere, but you get tired of staying.”
When asked how to play the 12 string guitar Leadbelly said: “you’ve got to keep something moving all the time.”
Good poems move. They avoid the ponderous. The good poet hits an inside the park homer.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about, a poem that moves, a poem that treats of ideas without polemical rhetoric, a poem of stark beauty. This is “Sanctuary” by Donika Kelley:
The tide pool crumples like a woman
into the smallest version of herself,
bleeding onto whatever touches her.
The ocean, I mean, not a woman, filled
with plastic lace, and closer to the vanishing
point, something brown breaks the surface—human,
maybe, a hand or foot or an island
of trash—but no, it’s just a garden of kelp.
A wild life.
This is a prayer like the sea
urchin is a prayer, like the sea
star is a prayer, like the otter and cucumber—
as if I know what prayer means.
I call this the difficulty of the non-believer,
or, put another way, waking, every morning, without a god.
How to understand, then, what deserves rescue
and what deserves to suffer.
Or should I say, what must
be sheltered and what abandoned.
I might ask you to imagine a young girl,
no older than ten but also no younger,
on a field trip to a rescue. Can you
see her? She is led to the gates that separate
the wounded sea lions from their home and the class.
How the girl wishes this measure of salvation for herself:
to claim her own barking voice, to revel
in her own scent and sleek brown body, her fingers
woven into the cyclone fence.
I believe Donika Kelly is one of the best poets currently writing in the United States. Note her nearly buried question—the question—“can you see her?” How does one say it? The better poets bifurcate the self, create what the poet James Tate once described as a “self-to-self dichotomy” which is an engine, a phenomenological drive that lifts the poem out of easy confessionalism. Kelly offers us three perspectives in the poem: the little girl encountering woundedness, the adult poet who would try to make sense of consciousness, and yes the adult poet as philosopher. And though you’ll think me odd for saying so, Kelly’s swift intelligence reminds me of Anne Sexton:
“The Ambition Bird”
So it has come to this –
insomnia at 3:15 A.M.,
the clock tolling its engine
like a frog following
a sundial yet having an electric
seizure at the quarter hour.
The business of words keeps me awake.
I am drinking cocoa,
the warm brown mama.
I would like a simple life
yet all night I am laying
poems away in a long box.
It is my immortality box,
my lay-away plan,
All night dark wings
flopping in my heart.
Each an ambition bird.
The bird wants to be dropped
from a high place like Tallahatchie Bridge.
He wants to light a kitchen match
and immolate himself.
He wants to fly into the hand of Michelangelo
and come out painted on a ceiling.
He wants to pierce the hornet’s nest
and come out with a long godhead.
He wants to take bread and wine
and bring forth a man happily floating in the Caribbean.
He wants to be pressed out like a key
so he can unlock the Magi.
He wants to take leave among strangers
passing out bits of his heart like hors d’oeuvres.
He wants to die changing his clothes
and bolt for the sun like a diamond.
He wants, I want.
Dear God, wouldn’t it be
good enough just to drink cocoa?
I must get a new bird
and a new immortality box.
There is folly enough inside this one.
I do not say these poems are thematically alike only that the restless, clear-headed and determined imagination pushes each lyric, strips each poem of sanctimony and lumbering rhetoric.
I mentioned “easy confessionalism” above because the worst in our contemporary poetry, our Midland stampede is toward wounded blab. I just went to Poetry Magazine and found dozens of examples. I won’t quote them. Instead, just for fun, I’m going to offer my own parody of a contemporary shit-poem:
Trousers, wrinkled, old man
On the floors of childhood
So I’ve got to carry them
Like Nana did.
I could continue but I won’t.
Here are some closing thoughts:
Bad poetry isn’t caused by free verse.
It doesn’t happen because a poet wants to write about the personal.
It doesn’t sneak into your word processor at night while you’re sleeping.
But does happen when the conventions of your ponderous age creep in.
It happens when unlike Donika Kelly or Anne Sexton the poet isn’t tough and fast.
Ezra Pound said “the book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.”