In an age where we overanalyse art (and those who created it) to death, poetry is a singular force. It is what it is and forever has value because of it.
There are two things that bring me to tears: hormone fluctuations and poetry. I am not stoic by any stretch, in fact, it’s not uncommon for someone to accuse me of being melodramatic, but I am not exaggerating when I say my emotional responses to poetry are more articulate than those to my personal experiences – not that the two aren’t intertwined.
A good poem moves me in its own right, and I have an unwavering appreciation for the trained yet nuanced deployment of poetic devices, however, the invention transcends its mechanics. Virtuosic poetry warrants the type of study that requires close reading to find the individual elements, but the more masterful a poem is, the less obvious these elements are.
Readers, especially students, can get lost in excess analysis to the point of losing the magic of the poem as a whole. I’m a literature – no, a poetry – nerd, so I find the kind of maniacal enjoyment that disconcerts people from obsessively repeating one line of poetry, but this didn’t stop me from distancing myself from dead poets once I graduated to the land of syllabi-free poetry reading. I did my time with the old guard. Its members taught me enough to owe a debt of gratitude, but the point of learning the rules is to 1) break them and/or 2) add to them in order to reinvent the medium. At some point, old, white men stopped being interesting, and I even hung around their corners of bookstores longer than most students. (But I’ve said it once, and I will say it again: The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock is the reason I now have an English degree. My parents probably hate Eliot.)
I reluctantly accept that most people do not and will not owe their life to poetry, but if I could do one thing with the life I do owe to poetry, it would be to rid the world of the misconception that poetry is academic and inaccessible.
For all my gripes with UVA, the poetry department was quite the redemptive force. Rita Dove and Gregory Orr (who we got to call “Greg”), anyone? Aimee Nezhukumatathil (who writes the most joyful poetry I’ve ever read), Ricardo Rowan Philips, Nick Flynn (who shook me to my core), Paul Muldoon and Natalie Diaz gave the most memorable readings and lectures of my time in school. (That’s not to mention prose writers, Lydia Davis, Jane Alison, Salman Rushdie, and Junot Diaz, whose books I read in a single sitting.) The only type of graduate school I would consider attending is an MFA program.
It is a rule that forces readers to chase the “meaning” and prepare for analysis. A poem doesn’t have a “meaning.” It just… is what it is.
In the middle of the depressive episodes that kept me largely quarantined, poetry readings always coaxed me into the real world, and I was always better for it. Nothing beat the healing power of a sea of tilted heads, nods of admiration and tear-filled eyes as I listened to a poet arrange the words we use every day in a way that articulated that which we thought those words couldn’t.
I’m not much of a critic or analyst. I like to get my hands dirty and work on writing poetry itself, but in my recovery, I spend more time reading than writing. My exploration of the world of contemporary poetry has made one thing clear: poetry is not a dying and irrelevant art form.
There are quite a few contemporary poets who find profundity in the mundane, break down barriers between high and low culture, and aren’t afraid to explore the taboo. If you hang around me long enough, you’re bound to hear about Morgan Parker, Melissa Broder, Franny Choi, Danez Smith, Eve Ewing and Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib.
If you hang around me for a little while longer, you’ll hear me talk about Kaveh Akbar like his poetry is scripture. Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Akbar transforms me every single time I read it. It is insane. It is so perfectly positioned between the personal and political, denial of self and indulgence in it, the urgent and timeless, and the spiritual and natural that I have to put the book down and take a breath every other line. It negotiates the tension between the desire for personal progress and attraction of all that threatens stagnation or regress in a way that is universal even when the speaker focuses on individual struggles.
I mean just read this poem by him in Poetry magazine. It is honest and precise, which makes it even more honest. I could pick it apart, and I have on my own time. But that might ruin it for you.
Also on The Big Smoke
- The Kerouac rule: Separating the artist from their creations
- Know who you’re Googling: Sappho – Feminist trailblazer, ancient poetess, mystery
- Dylan Thomas: The superior poet colloquially painted a drunk
In school, they taught us to read poems three times – once to situate ourselves, once to immerse ourselves and once to pick up on the nuance, or at least, that’s how I always interpreted those instructions. Now, that rule seems arbitrary. It is a rule that forces readers to chase the “meaning” and prepare for analysis. A poem doesn’t have a “meaning.” It just… is what it is.
It sounds cheesy, but I find it best to just read the poem and let it wash over me without expectations or goals. That’s what I mean when I say the whole of a poem transcends its parts. Our misconceptions of poetry as “high-minded” and difficult to understand are so ingrained that I have a hard time getting people to read a poem without having the reflex to search for a hidden meaning kick in. Yes, they read it, but they treat the words like puzzle pieces; however, the puzzle is complete. On a personal level, a poem will mean different things to different people, but one doesn’t have to “look” for a meaning in an objective sense.
We are conditioned to search for the correct answer, and this mentality ruins poetry. It’s great to learn the rules, but it’s terrible to let them constrain how we read and write.
That’s where contemporary comes in. When we stop seeing poetry as the art form of dead men, we can engage with it like we engage with, say, a song that moves us in a borderline spiritual way. We don’t sit there and dissect chord progressions, lyrics or rhythms; however, that doesn’t mean the experience is completely passive. Nobody dictates how we should interpret the song, but that doesn’t prevent the evocation of emotion – rather, something beyond emotion. It’s more like a sense of connection to something beyond the individual self, and this connection stems from precise acknowledgment of mundane but universal experiences and relating these experiences to one another in both surprising ways as well as obvious yet difficult-to-articulate ways. It makes the listener say “Yes! That’s what I felt, heard, or thought when X happened, I just didn’t know how to put it.” We don’t have to be academicians to get it. We listen and engage with a song not because of an external obligation but an internal compulsion.
Poetry works the same way. As Emily Dickinson said, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
That being said, I will leave you with a plea to read Cartoon Physics, part 1 by Nick Flynn – a perfect combination of using modern-day references to identify universal and timeless phenomena.