Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Problem with Poetry

I recently got to attend a poetry writing workshop outside of class. It was pretty simple; we read some poetry (Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Stanley Kunitz, and Wisława Szymborska), discussed a few elements, wrote, and then read aloud and critiqued each other's poetry.

The conclusions I drew from the exercise were this: if I want to write more poetry, I need to read more poetry. Consequently, I pulled my Sonnets of William Shakespeare and a book of Charles Baudelaire off my shelf to be looked at more closely. I've also been recommended quite a list by an extremely literate acquaintance. Second, and less concrete: the problem and beauty of poetry is that it's very subjective.

The poem I wrote for the workshop is short. I don't think it's high literature, but I enjoy it. It's called Hopeful.

The poet seems to live on paths
Places behind, at hand, and places ahead
While everyman simply wanders past
in fear, blind to poetry in "dead."
With hearts in rapture, some sing of heaven
While darker tongues, they mutter of hell.
I walk along with clearing vision
Where I go, my voice will tell.
My heart lingers like the others
But is quickened by the dreamed-of things.
Change my path? You cannot offer
Hopeful's heart the dreamed-of wings.

I got some good feedback. People asked about word choice, fiddled with meaning and viewpoint, and in general it was a very positive experience. There's only one problem: I like it the way it is. Maybe I'm just ignorant of devices and meaning in poetry. I certainly don't know much, but I do enjoy reading it, and I'm very analytical. I was probably one of the most vocal in critiquing, but I tried to be positive and helpful. I hope the other participants were impacted as positively as I was.

But there are many different styles. I like zany, quirky poems with abstract meanings, but I tend to be more impressed with structured poems with a sharper focus. I like dreaminess. I like unusual phrases. I like a great many things, but it's hard to define what makes a great poem for me, and  what I think is great certainly won't sit well with everybody. My abovementioned literate acquaintance doesn't care for T.S. Eliot, but The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock is one of my favorite poems.

Also, poetry is personal. You may be writing for an audience, but I feel like poetry is more reflective of self than many other forms of writing. Hopeful says what I want it to say. Changing it might make it more accessible to others, but it is really for me. This is why criticism can hurt, in writing in general and poetry in particular. It's a piece of one's self that's been nursed and painstakingly built into existence, or else blindly dashed off in a surge of emotion. Either way, unless you're really just looking to make it better by whatever standards the literary gods that be have put forth, I don't think it's meant to be changed for the sake of being someone else's "better."

I analyze literature. I declare some things to be better than others, and some agree with me. Some of what I say may even may be true. But the really personal aspects of literature? I don't think those can rightfully be declared good or bad. And that is my problem with writing poetry. I write it for me, for amusement, for crystallization of thought. Maybe something great will come out of it someday. But the truth remains that where I am -- writing poetry for myself, unattended by an audience to determine what is good and what is bad -- workshops like this will be interesting, but always subjective. I think that's what I like about poetry, actually.


  1. This is truly a problem in all literature, and art in general. It is really impossible to do anything worth while without having it attached to you in some way. The best you can do is do what you love right?

    Also, have you read any of Lewis Carrol's poetry? It's got that quirky style you mentioned. You might like it, I know I do.

  2. I have the Jabberwocky memorized. I've read all his poetry that's in Alice and Through the Looking Glass, at least.

    1. I feel like it's some initiation for writers to memorize the Jabberwocky, I did that in high school. Remind me to lend you my "complete works" sometimes, his other stuff is pretty fun.