Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Wednesday, May 28, 2003  

Prose and Poetry and Prose Poetry
Ah, poetry. Appreciated like an old Underwood typewriter--for what it must have meant to someone once, in a quaint and distant past. Much more rarely is it enjoyed directly, for what it is. Sure, a vast empire of literary magazines continues to keep the form in print, thereby keeping a sizeable number of poets writing, but who actually reads the stuff? I'll bet you don't read even the short pieces in the New Yorker.

Well, you're not alone, and it's not your fault. Poetry proliferates because it's short and easy to write. Good poetry does not proliferate, however, and it's far harder to write. Good poetry employs a variety of literary techniques--voice, meter, cadence, metaphor, pacing--to create complex emotions and levels of understanding in the reader. Good poetry is rare because the form is so condensed that a single wrong note can ruin the whole thing (novels, on the other hand, can survive hundreds of minor flaws).

If that's not enough, add to that the fact that most of the poetry written today is free verse (that is, no meter and no rhyme scheme), and the whole venture becomes even more amorphous. Let's have a look:


Was it because
at last
I cleaned the window

that he threw himself
against the glass?
I thought, poor crow--

he doesn't know
the evergreens
and blue sky

are behind him.
I turned back
to my page

but whumpp--
the bird attacked
the glass again.

(The poem goes on from there in the same vein.) So, good poem or bad? Before passing judgment, I will tell you that I took the selection from Poetry--the most well-regarded poetry magazine in the country. So?

I'm willing to go out on a limb and say: it's bad (with apologies to the author, who may well be a wonderful poet). If you read it aloud, the way it's written, it has a certain pleasant cadence. The two nice rhymes complement the herky-jerky rhythm in much the way a crow, first gliding, then sprawling and scrambling, might appear if he ran into a window. But her word selection is uninspired and pedestrian ("glass" twice, "evergreens" and "blue" and "whumpp"). And the most obvious thing is the clear prosification of the piece. Even reading it in it's segmented form, you can't help but hear it as a paragraph:

Was it because at last I cleaned the window that he threw himself against the glass? I thought, poor crow--he doesn't know the evergreens and blue sky are behind him. I turned back to my page but whumpp--the bird attacked the glass again.

This prosification of poetry has been an ongoing phenomenon since, I suspect, free verse. (Which is not to condemn the style. Rhyme's time is done, or almost. In the age of text messaging, it's hard to expect people to relate to "When by my solitary hearth I sit/ When no fair dreams before my mind's eye flit….") But it's gotten far worse over the past few years.

I had intended to link to an article that the poet David Alpaugh wrote in the March Poets and Writers magazine called "The Professionalization of Poetry, Part II" (but unfortunately, it's not posted). In it, he discusses this recent trend of poetry that is absolutely indistinguishable from pure prose, save that it's been (apparently) retroactively chopped up into lines and stanzas. I had especially wanted to show you some of the examples he found to illustrate the point. You'll just have to take my word for it.

So: first poetry became unpopular because people couldn't relate to its form, and then its form changed to something other than poetry. Things look dire indeed.

Who Cares?
The question arises: why not let poetry slide into irrelevance?--after all, I've got my Lara Croft.

The short answer, clarified the moment we saw the tangle of steel ribbon and cloud of dust where the World Trade Center used to be, is that we still need it. Poetry's irrelevance to the post-sincere pre-9/11 world was as nearly complete. But events have changed that. Confronted with 9/11 and the world we've inherited (with war, terrorism, and fear), poetry suddenly seems important.

This is poetry's place--to create meaning of chaos. Of course, what I've written here today is a wholly American analysis. The place of poetry was probably not so tenuous in other cultures. One would imagine not in Poland, for example, where Wislawa Szymborska wrote:

After every war
someone has to tidy up.
Things won't pick
themselves up, after all.

Someone has to shove
the rubble to the roadsides
so the carts loaded with corpses
can get by.

Someone has to trudge
through sludge and ashes,
through the sofa springs,
the shards of glass,
the bloody rags.

Someone has to lug the post
to prop the wall,
someone has to glaze the window,
set the door in its frame.

No sound bites, no photo opportunities,
and it takes years.
All the cameras have gone
to other wars.

The bridges need to be rebuilt,
the railroad stations, too.
Shirtsleeves will be rolled
to shreds.

Someone, broom in hand,
still remembers how it was.
Someone else listens, nodding
his unshattered head.
But others are bound to be bustling nearby
who'll find all that
a little boring.

From time to time someone still must
dig up a rusted argument
from underneath a bush
and haul it off to the dump.

Those who knew
what this was all about
must make way for those
who know little.
And less than that.
And at last nothing less than nothing.

Someone has to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gawking at the clouds.

(Yes, it's prosified verse, too--I don't deny it. Goes to show: poetry's a delicate thing. And who among us who opposed the war could read this without being moved? Incidentally, I have a nice Sharon Olds, too, just to show Americans can write relevant poetry. Things are running on awfully long here, so if you wish to see it, email me.)

posted by Jeff | 3:34 PM |
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