I Get Artsy and Talk About Poetry

At the community college where I work, a truly astonishing number of the adjuncts are poets and writers. Which just goes to show that Paglia is right and the real creativity of academe is not to be found in its upper echelons. Or it just goes to show that poets and writers make no money and must supplement their precarious financial existences with adjunct work.

In any case, they are surprisingly good. I say this because I once attended a poetry reading at the local library, and the poems read were horrible: pretentious drek posing as unique but actually just poor copies of Frost, cummings, etc. The poets struck me mostly as academic poets while the poets I've encountered at the community college are what I think of as working poets: people who write poetry when they aren't driving trucks. Working poets take their writing seriously because writing, the craft, is what they want to do; that is, their poetry isn't merely the approved vehicle for expressing angst.

I really can't analyze it more than that. Poetry is a blind spot in my mind. Writing prose is NOT the same thing as writing poetry. Poetry is much more mathematical, for one thing. I was always reasonably proficient in algebra, but then algebra tells a story. Abstract math like trigonometry completely bewilders me. And yet poetry seems to draw on that aspect of the brain.

Poetry is also much more emotional. Prose is, to a certain extent, about hiding emotion. Or at least, it is about revealing emotion under carefully controlled circumstances. But poetry seems, well, naked to me as well as being much more autobiographical. In my fiction, I may use personal experiences, but the characters are never me. In poetry, it seems the "I" is always the author.

Due to my blind spot, I can't really comment on what makes good poetry good. But, as many a person has said when staring upon a Jackson Pollack, "I may not understand it but I know what I like."

Some favorites:

A.E. Housman: "To An Athlete Dying Young"

Rilke: "The Panther" Okay, I heard it first in the movie Awakenings, but I really, really like it.

Shakespeare: Well, yes, of course. (And actually, that isn't just a knee-jerk famous-guy-must-be-great reaction. He truly is astonishing. A kind of genius of geniuses.)

Keats: actually, I think Coleridge was the better poet, but I've always gotten a kick out of Keats. I have a picture of him on my wall. He was this short, rambunctious, passionate and off-kilter guy who then upped and died very romantically. And he got taken over by the Pre-Raphaelites whom I've always liked, despite their garish taste.

T.S. Eliot: "The Journey of the Magi"

Randy Newman: well, yes, that's music rather than poetry. But I admire Randy Newman.

Ezra Pound's translation of "The River-Merchant's Wife"

Walt Whitman's "Oh Captain My Captain" (but I never much cared for that incredibly long poem he wrote: "America, America")

Yeats, another strange dude: "Leda and the Swan" and "The Second Coming" (it's the one that ends "Slouching towards Bethlehem to be born")

Masefield's "Sea Fever"--I love this poem. I know it isn't great poetry, but it has always solicited an emotional response from me. I've reproduced it below.

Some non-favorites:

e.e. cummings: I liked e.e. cummings for about 2 seconds when I was a freshman in college. It passed very quickly. I can't stand e.e. cummings now. It isn't so much the pretentious writing
or for that matter
It's just, I don't think the stuff is very good.

Archibald MacLeish: I adored MacLeish when I was eighteen. Eighteen year olds are very odd. I adored him so much, I bought his collected poems, special order. I still like him, but I don't adore him. He's a tad too heavy handed.

Recommended Anthology:

Disenchantments: An Anthology of Modern Fairy Tale Poetry: one of the few poetry collections I own (T.S. Eliot's Wasteland and Archibald MacLeish's Collected Poems--see above--are the others).

Sea Fever

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.


1 comment:

Henry said...

I like the thought of poetry as mathematical and rigorous. All the best poetry I have bought and read in the last decade are translations -- Robert Pinsky's Inferno and Seamus Heaney's Beowulf in particular. Pinksy's introduction the former is a masterful discussion of a technical approach to structure.

These stand in stark contrast to the banal standard of our day: lyrical poetry written by minor-league academics in passive contemplation of their navels. Or, perhaps, if they are nature poets, a bird they saw at dusk. Or perhaps, if they are political poets, a disaster on the news and how it made them feel.

It's easy to forget how much great poetry is narrative. Many of Frost's best, most unsettling work is narrative -- The Pauper Witch of Grafton for example.