Wednesday, May 25, 2011

I am not a Poet

Generally speaking, poetry makes me feel stupid. I'm often intimidated by it (I don't think I'm alone in my assessment). It can be inaccessible. Sure, there's the typical stuff--the daunting Homeric epics, or the overwhelming verses by Milton or Dante, the impenetrable blocks of Gertrude Steinery ("all this makes a magnificent asparagus, and also a fountain" really, Gertrude? What?).  But there are much more simple, more straightforward writers that I'm still so baffled by. I'm so intimidated that I won't even venture a guess. Heck, I may not know everything about fiction, but I'm willing to fling myself out a bit to figure it out.  But not with poetry.  And that frustrates me sometimes. I have a visceral reaction to it, but I can't always articulate it. And sometimes, I'm just not sure. One step outside the canon and I have no way of discerning good from bad. Heck, even within the canon it can get a little fuzzy for me. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock? Yup. Absolutely (though don't ask me why or how) The Red Wheelbarrow? Uhhh. Maybe?  Should I like this? I don't know!

Then, there's Dean Young. (If you've never heard of him, here's a recent NPR story about him and his recent heart surgery:

Dean Young writes the kind of poems that punch all manner of holes into what I just wrote above.  No, I don't always "get" him. But often, I don't care. Often, the joy of reading the words on the page--the way they are placed, the order, the rhythm, the juxtaposition--supersede any need for explanation. The dark humor, the charm, the cerebral wit.  Take, for example, the first three stanzas of "My Work Among the Insects"

The body of the lingerneedle is filled
with hemolymph unconstricted except
for a single dorsal vessel. A ventral
diaphragm bathes the organs of the head,

undulations drawing the fluid back through
tiny holes called ostia aided by
 the movement
of a Napoleon within each abdominal segment
pacing his Elba exile, muttering la Russie

la Russie as the snow squeaks beneath
his boots. All through the night
the temperature drops but no one
knows where the lingerneedle goes.

"Aided by a Napoleon within each abdominal segment/pacing his Elba exile, muttering la Russie/La Russie as the snow squeaks beneath/his boots...." Are you kidding me?! That's effing brilliant! Or how about this, a few stanzas later:

Often in July,
one finds them collapsed in the tub, unable
to gain purchase on the porcelain that seems

to attract them mightily. It is best not
to make everything a metaphor of one's own life
but many have pressed themselves against cool
and smooth, in love and doomed.

Aaahhh! "...but many have pressed themselves against cool/and smooth, in love and doomed." I have never read anything so perfect in my life. I want to run outside, shouting, nailing copies of this poem to the doors of my neighbors' homes like some kind of Martin Luther of the MFA crowd.
See? I don't know how to really, smartly talk about it. I don't know exactly what it is that makes me want to do cartwheels over this thing. But I don't care, for some reason. I'm happy just to point to it, drooling like the idiot it makes me, and say "Isn't this phen-effing-omenal?" But maybe the fact that I have no real vocabulary is because the work is so great. 

Maybe that's what great art should do--make us stupid with happiness.


  1. What a great post. I used to feel this way about poetry, until someone read the right poetry to me; now I see how a few words can create images, emotions and connections which are hard to shake. For example, after reading one Billy Collins poem which included a mention of lavender hydrangeas near his door, I decided not to read any more poems until I was through savoring that one image, which connected to me so deeply, and brought to mind the misty colors of the moist Oregon landscape and the yellow wood siding on the house where I once lived, outside which a hydrangea bush grew. I discovered it's a misconception that we must analyze poetry. I learned to enjoy it by simply--enjoying it. Thanks for sharing Dean Young's words, he is new to me. P.S. Find a good translation of Homer that captures the song-like lines of the original Greek, it is worth a second look.

  2. I'm going to have to disagree...I think you're an incredible poet. I've experienced the same trauma about The Red Wheelbarrow, too. But, I think we like what we like. You have always had an amazing ear for lyric, for inflection, for pace. I think that's what you love about writing and reading - picking out the gems and relishing them. I know that's what I enjoy when reading others' work. I can bypass the whole story if something was described just so. I recently read "The Tender Bar" by JR Moehringer and found myself grinning from ear to ear as I read. The group I read it with hated the story and I kept saying, "but his WRITING...!" I think that's also why you love those overheard snippets of conversation, little puzzle pieces of magnificence. You have such a love and appreciation of words and how they come together - the joy is just discovering them over and over in books and poetry, I guess. Maybe that's why I said before that you're a poet trapped in a novelists body. You have all of these magnificent puzzle pieces and want to build a giant mural from them, when maybe a small collection of snapshots would be more powerful. Don't know what I'm saying here, I am in no way qualified to give writing advice, but maybe it's finding a puzzle piece and building the story or snapshot (poem? short story?) around it that would seem less daunting as you consider the process. I dunno. I know I have more to say about this, but it involves us sitting together over a plate of fries...why don't we live closer!?

  3. wow. thank you both for such lovely comments. actually, thanks to everyone who's posted--both here and directly via email. i'm heartened not only by the actual comments, but also by the fact that people are reading the blog!

    @mindy: you are the best. talk about reading something with a huge grin on my face. thanks so much for your encouragement. i can't tell you what it means to me. xoxo

    ps: you. me. august. plate of fries. it's on!