Alas, I realized several things. First, support your local bookstores, because they likely have the poetry that Barnes & Noble lacks. For those in the Denver area, look up Tattered Cover Bookstores. They are fairly big and have several locations, but they are still a local bookseller. For those closer to Fort Collins, I recommend Firehouse Books. For my fellow Greeley residents, you are shit out of luck; the last bookstore closed earlier this year. Second, people need to read more poetry. If Barnes & Noble will devote four and a half rows to Christian fiction and nothing to poetry, it is only because Christian fiction sells better. This makes me fear for the part of the state where I live.
This incident with Barnes & Noble is the cause of this blog post. What is poetry? What effect has poetry had on me? How should one read poetry? What is the fate of poetry in American culture at large? These and several other questions came to mind as I mulled over this topic over several days.
Personal Excursions into Poetry
But now, good boys, strong gentlemen, take heed:
Before continuing, I would like to emphasize that what follows below is not something that I have pulled from scholarly articles, but is anecdotal in content. At the risk of sounding like a know-it-all English major, let's explore what kind of poetry there is.
Flavors of Poetry
Like fiction, poems have several different structures. Most readers will already know of haikus, sonnets, ballads, dirges, and epics. For the adept student who remembers their high school English classes, one might even recall the existence of couplets, and iambic pentameter. In my own anecdotal experience, the most rigidly structured poems are usually the most erudite, most pedantic, and often devoid of emotional content. The overall structure of poems do not interest me, at least not in the sense I wish to write about in this post. (If you wish to see a full list of types of poetry, you can visit poetryfoundation.org). For this post, I am more interested in the content of poetry.
Unlike essays, novels, and many other written works, poems are unique in that most of them are extremely short. Most poems take up less than 5 pages, with each page only half-filled. The brevity of poetry requires an extensive vocabulary and mastery of language to get an idea across to the reader. With vivid imagery and precise story-telling, a poem usually conveys a single main point. The singularity of poetry can make it both approachable and hard. Unlike essays or novels or blog posts, the transition between thoughts and verses is abrupt, often with no lead-in phrasing. Poetry cuts away the excess baggage of written language, the unnecessary prepositions, articles, and punctuation, and focuses on content. This stripping bare of language to get to the core of human experience is, in my humble opinion, poetry's greatest appeal.
Despite the brevity and accessibility of some poetry, much older poetry is very erudite and inaccessible without having a background in a particular subject. This might require a certain familiarity with famous historical or religious figures, a particular philosophy, or a narrow theme in literature. For example, there is an entire sub-genre of poetry within the Zen Buddhist tradition of China and Japan. If one doesn't know the fundamentals of Buddhism and the history of Zen, the poems probably won't make sense. For this reason, it is important to find poetry that matches your interests and experience, or that doesn't require any specialized background knowledge.
Live Poetry Slams
The original inspiration for poetry slams were to give poetry back to the audience. Marc Smith, the person credited with inventing poetry slam, was sick and tired of listening to stuffy, boring, bland poetry that put an audience to sleep. In its stead, he created a way that poetry could be engaged with by the audience, where noise and applause and hoots for the poet were encouraged, not shushed.
The atmosphere is designed to be very positive, and these friendly competitions help poets create better work. The theme of many of these poems are real-world conflicts. The girl struggling with depression, the man recovering from anorexia, the boy whose mentally disabled brother is the target of bullying. You get to see many poets go through a cathartic experience on stage, which is chilling, even if they've performed the poem several times. There is a certain power in sharing intimate experience with a live audience, which affects both the speaker and the listener. Even if you don't like poetry, I recommend going to a poetry slam, if for no other reason than the friendly atmosphere, food, and drink. Mercury Cafe hosts a poetry slam every other week, but I know there are others in Loveland and Fort Collins.
Final Thoughts: Why We Need Poetry
I am not a poet, nor do I have a vested financial or literary interest in the development of poetry. I am a spectator who participates every once in a while, when it becomes important to me to view the landscape. If poetry were like football, I am the viewer who misses every single game except for the Super Bowl. Everything I've written about the essence of poetry should be taken with a grain of salt. I simply come for good poetry, and stay for the exceptional execution of each craftsman.
There are plenty of people who want poetry to develop and change, though, who live and breath poetry. In an interesting article published on the Huffington Post, several poets are asked to comment on the state of American poetry. This article provides a series of diverse opinions from multiple poets on the state of poetry in America. Rather than comment on a literary tradition I am not qualified to review, I recommend reading this article.
I would like to leave you with a poem I recently read, by Dean Young, in his collection Bender: New & Selected Poems. I have reproduced this poem from a public page you can view on Google Books here.
I turned the assemblage upside down,
positioned the gusset flush with the rabbit.
Folded the lower hanging end up and right,
forming what would be the front of the bow.
Did the full left turn past 8 to stop at
34. Used caution with contents under pressure.
Softened the butter. Inserted and adhered.
Called and culled. Meandered buggish upon
the clinquant plain. Misconceived, re-
convened. Arrived at the gates one hour
before departure. Splintered pencils.
Deadheaded cosmos. Flattened leaves
in a book identifying leaves. Held
the bucket. Memorized and forgot
amino acid configurations, French vocabulary,
directions from Chicago to Peoria, the generals
of The Illiad and where they came from.
Who survived. One wishes to avoid the sense
of being trapped inside a plastic garbage sack
although the sense of breaking out
may be cathartic. The tears so blue,
you palpate like an asteroid. You start things
and it's difficult to end them
like an affair that begins with the simple
desire to see a magnificent body naked
but then achieves the consistency of sap.
Alternately, you start things
and it's difficult to keep them going
like an affair that begins with the simple
desire to see a magnificent disrobing but
then deepens like the color of clothing
wet with rain. Rain after months of no rain
and the desert blooms. As if there was no such thing
as a simple desire. One is not likely
to forget or, for a while, be able
to drink even a glass of orange juice without
pain. One shops for a new fish for the aquarium,
tries not to go only to the same places.
The novel progresses until thunk--parts
six seven eight. The horse trots over
to the gate, accepts your proffered
weeds. One tries not to be a ghost
even if that means wearing at sunset a read hat.
Being impossible with waitresses. Not signalling.
Still, one tries to go on making, following
instructions. It is best to assemble first
without glue as practice, then disassemble,
glue and reassemble but who has patience
for that? One fucks up and regrets but
sometimes not too terribly because they've
included extra screw blocks, extra screws.
Plethoras of putties. Everyone will understand
why you arrive so late, so barehanded.
The swans are back on the lake.
David R. Severson