Monday, October 27, 2008

When Poetry Got Ruined for Me

Okay, first of all, this dog has nothing to do with poetry. But J. complained that my last post didn't have any pictures, so I'm putting a picture on this one. This is a great thrift store find from last month. It's a bank. And it's a dog. And it's cute. It makes me happy.

So, about poetry. September 11 kind of ruined poetry for me. Here's how it happened. It was such a momentous event, probably the most emotional historical event in my lifetime (so far, I should say), and the way I tried to comprehend it, make sense of it, was to turn to poetry. Because I was writing poetry at the time, and working on my Masters thesis in writing. I went to a local event with some great poets and listened to their poetic responses to the event. I particularly remember Emily Carter, a fabulous writer, using the f-word a lot in her presentation, because she was so pissed off about how everyone on television was already talking about healing not even a week after this horrible thing had happened, and why was America so obsessed with healing, why couldn't we slow down and feel the pain?

Then Patricia Kirkpatrick stepped up and read a horrible poem (I hate her, she was one of my writing professors and I demanded I be removed from her class after she tried to intimidate me--long story) in which she not only called out to make sure her pre-teen son was in the room listening while she read it, but then she had him in the poem. She used her children in her writing. While they were still children. I personally think this is wrong. And abusive, in a way. Anyway, that made me sick. There were some other brilliant poets (Jim Moore, for one) that had words of inspiration, and I left the event feeling somewhat better, if you can call it that. I felt connected, anyway, to a community, to my people, other writers, in this strange time.

But it wasn't enough. I wanted more. I looked for more poetry. I looked online. Mistake. Lots of bad poetry. I looked then for poetry that had already been written about other tragic events, to see if it mattered, if it had to be about 9/11 for me to feel some current resonance with it. And I just started collecting these poems that I thought were effective measures of grief. A lot of them were about WWII. In Flanders Fields gives me goosebumps.

When this was all happening, I was still working on my Masters degree. After I graduated, I decided to propose a class to teach at The Loft Literary Center, as many Hamline MFA graduates had followed that track. And I was feeling pressure to follow that track, as I've said in my previous post. But I also wanted to do something that was meaningful to me. So I proposed teaching this class about writing poetry out of grief. It was a little difficult to draw a line, I didn't want to be a therapist, I wanted serious (oh, here we go with the seriousness of it all) writers who wanted to use the craft of poetry to make meaningful art out of an experience of grief, whether it be a public event, like 9/11, or a private loss.

My idea was summarily rejected. It was thought to be much too ambitious. They were worried I had no idea how much I was proposing to accomplish in one class. So I was crushed. I really shouldn't have proposed it. I didn't want to do it. I mean, I wanted to prove I could do it. But I didn't want to do it. So when they said I couldn't, that knocked the wind out of me.

I used to write a lot of poetry. Back when we first moved to Minnesota, I was all aglow with the wonder of the seasons and everything was beautiful and I'd just married this prince of a guy...since then I got a bit jaded. I've written maybe 2 poems since I've been out of school. But I've been through all kinds of grief. You'd think I'd have oodles of odes. Nope. I find it hard to approach. And I don't read much of it either. Sometimes I will pull one of my poetry books out and read a couple poems, and I'll think, yes, that's it. That's exactly it. But other times I read someone who's supposed to be this great poet and I'm just not willing to slog through all the allusion and metaphor and I just think "what a load." Does that make me a bad writer? Or reader?

I think some serious poets are full of crap. So there. And some are posers. Billy Collins, I remember when he was Poet Laureate, one of my poetry professors was just so annoyed about it, said he wasn't a serious poet, and the more I read his poems, the more I see what he means. Collins is cheeky and always reserves the right to step out of himself and join the boys, not stay committed to his emotional investment in the poem. Does anyone understand what the heck I'm talking about here? American culture is all about satire. We hate ourselves. We make fun of ourselves all the time. We think we're making fun of each other, but it's us, too. I just read this really interesting article about a new book called Why We Hate Us, about "a complex society that is drawn to its culture and also repulsed by it." I think I need to read this.

Will I be able to read poetry again? I think so. Maybe not in whole book-length doses, but that's okay. I remember like 15 years ago when I was writing a zine, I got this poetry zine from this guy, and it was so hilarious, every poem was funny enough to make you pee your pants. I wish I could find that. Now that was some good poetry. I remember he made fun of my dreams, how I would take them too seriously. He drew this cartoon of me looking really serious, talking about how in this dream "I had a piece of toast," and he's standing next to me listening, trying not to fall asleep. It was done in a sweet way, like hey, Merc, lighten up. God, I wish I could find those poems.


Chris said...

Well, my perspective on poetry is not the most inclusive in the world. Here's why I love poetry. I love the mathematics of it. I love the geometry of it. I love manipulating form, letter, word, rhyme, meter, and idea. It doesn't have to evoke deep feelings. I don’t much care to express my feelings through it. I find very few emotionally driven poems which are any good, because the feelings are so often labored and couched in metaphor, simile, allusion or allegory. And it's not because I am not learned in classics or myth. A lot of people feel or believe imitating classics or high language is how to express feelings through poetry. But look at In Flanders Fields. That guy knew how to express feeling through poetry. How plain could he be?

I kind of love it that your friend made fun of some of your poems. Not that I'm glad he hurt your feelings, because I know how awful that is. I've cried over poems people just didn't understand the way I thought they should. But, I think in a way you appreciate his jest more than anything. That you know it was sincere and loving. I don't like it when people won't even try to appreciate poetry. But I do like it when they see it as a foreign language. That's what it is. It's made to be translated, to be read through a translator. At least that's my take on it. I think that's why mostly only other poets still read poetry. It's sad that it's not more accessible, but is loaded with so much weight. We could all use that kind of reading with perspective!

Anyway, as if I haven't said enough already, to me poetry is not only about cancer, at least not at its essence. First, it's about a blank piece of paper, a missing tooth, a flower that's past its prime. An idea that doesn't make sense. The little dog figurine you love. The parts of a pencil. I bet if you start with the study of a fork, you will find the love of writing poetry again, you'll find your own In Flanders Fields, a plain poem, fundamentally felt.

Sharon P said...

Hey, Carrie, that was really thoughtful and interesting. I haven't really thought too much about why I like or don't like poetry. Mostly I like short poems that somehow manage to get at the essence of a thing with as few words as possible. Maybe that's the journalist in me -- short and sweet, that's how I like 'em! Except that can get tedious, too. I once bought a couple of books of haiku by Gerald Vizenor -- I mean, how cool is that, Visenor haiku? But I got tired of them really quickly. They start to come across as too precious or something.

Anyway, nice post, and interesting comment by Chris too. Good topic.