Friday, July 11, 2014

Attempting Poetry

Poetry? You’re kidding, right?

I’m really wanting to exercise the right side of my brain. For some reason poetry has become meaningful to me in recent years. I know, it’s probably more proof that I’m getting old. I mean, who reads poetry? Certainly not many people in my circles…that I know of. There are always those English majors around who say they do. I sometimes wonder if they really do…as in regularly read poetry. Kind of like the pastors I know who say they pray a lot. I hope they pray as much as they say they pray (but that’s another subject). I have found an interest in the writings of poets long dead, vis. Frost, Kipling, Wordsworth, Cowper, Burns, Dickinson, Longfellow, Milton, Tennyson, Emerson, and others. This interest was piqued when my son, Drew, a lover of old books, bought some volumes on poetry. I admit I sneaked into his room and read from them. I also have noticed that many old hymns were first poems (before later being set to music). Inspiring and beautiful! Where have these works of art been? Why have I not read them before?

Poetry seems to be a dying art. I have wondered why. There was a time—most of human history in fact—when poetry was ubiquitous. Books, magazines, newspapers; all printed some verse. Most sermons of generations past included poetry. Is it the changing of communication media? Is it that we are too busy and distracted with other more- and less-worthy pursuits? Is it, as some friends of mine have suggested, that people aren’t as smart as they used to be? None of those answers satisfy my curiosity.

Granted, poetry is not entirely forgotten. There are small societies for poets and poetry among the literary sort. And hip-hop (i.e. rap), a wildly popular form of music, is indeed lyrical poetry with meter and rhyme. But why are we no longer encouraged to write poems? Why don’t we read them as previous generations did? Do you know of someone, anyone, who makes their living by writing poetry (a.k.a. a poet)? I don’t.

I must confess, until recently, I’ve never really been into poetry. I liked the poetry in the Bible (of course it is translated into English, losing much of its original grammatical impact), and pithy sayings and quotes my parents and grandparents recited were pleasant. I grew up reading poems for children: from Dr. Seuss to Mother Goose. But in school I became intimidated by poetry. Shakespeare, and other ancient forms, were toilsome for me. Teachers seemed to make poetry aloof. Some focused on rules and gave assignments to write accordingly. It lost it’s fun. Others (later) discouraged all guidelines, and advocated more variety and complexity, reflecting our changing culture. Poetry seemed darker, more political, nuanced, existential and relative. These more recent (read: 20th century) varieties seemed odd to me. There was little or no meter or rhyme, and I couldn’t tell the difference between good poetry and bad. Can anyone? And because multiple meanings could be inferred, no one could know what the poet really meant—if anything at all! Poetry became in a sense, complex and unstructured. Cold, hard rules were overthrown by verbal anarchism. Yuck and yuck. In my mind, poetry was relegated to the territory of academicians and elitists. Simple minds (like mine) had a hard time understanding—much less appreciating it. Several weeks ago I was in a bookstore that happened to be hosting an "Original Poetry Reading." Thrilled, I conspicuously (not easy, only five or six others were listening) slipped in a seat and listened to a couple of rather lengthy poems. I must admit...I didn't get it. The first one had some interesting word-play, but made no sense to me whatever (the last one I endured was full of profanity and sexual innuendo—no thanks!). I left asking myself, "Am I so dull?" Maybe so. "Is this what Poetry really is?"

Perhaps my experience is not isolated. Could this be a (perhaps even the) reason for poetry’s waning? In The Virginia Quarterly Review, Christopher Clausen, in his essay, “The Decline of Anglo-American Poetry,” recognizes poetry’s loss of audience during the 20th century, and offers some interesting observations that confirm my own experience:

…Poetry became paradoxically more difficult to read, and the familiar series of phenomena began: the decline in the number of original books of poetry published from year to year, the disappearance of poetry as a major cultural force, the virtual extinction of the self-supporting poet…at almost precisely the time when the traditionally realistic novel was seeking other, often more traditionally poetic modes of expression. It is even more ironic that in the process of becoming less narrowly selective in its subjects and adopting free verse and a closer approximation of everyday language as its most conspicuous formal characteristics, poetry should have become less rather than more accessible to the common reader. (Find this excellent essay here:

Indeed, whenever a 20th century poet did arise who actually captured an audience, the critics (read: elitist academics) crowed and scoffed until the poor soul was ridden out on the proverbial rail. Rod McKuen serves as an example. In the 1950s and 60s he was arguably the best-known poet in the world, having a mainstream, populist appeal. Highbrows, however, spewed incessant indignation for his works. Writer and literary critic Nora Ephron said of McKuen, “[F]or the most part, McKuen's poems are superficial and platitudinous and frequently silly.” Pulitzer Prize-winning US Poet Laureate Karl Shapiro said, “It is irrelevant to speak of McKuen as a poet.” (Nora Ephron, “Wallflower at the Orgy.”) This kind of abuse, despite his popularity, drove him to despondency and clinical depression. My thought? What’s wrong with sentimentalism and populism if that’s what people want? It seems somewhat better than erudite, sophisticated poetry (or mindless babble cloaked as such) that no one reads! I’m no fan of sentimental country music (for example), but I appreciate it’s appeal. And I certainly don’t wish for its demise! Some of the more sincere, patriotic, philanthropic, and likable celebrities are country music stars. Why can’t we view poetry with the same tolerance as we do music? As with many things elitist, though they feign tolerance, in reality they are not tolerant at all.

So, I think I’m going to try my hand at some poetry. I want to free myself a bit! As Emily Dickinson wrote: 
They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they liked me “still” –
Still! Could themself have peeped –
And seen my Brain – go round –
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason – in the Pound –

Well, maybe I’m not that eager to write poetry. I know I may fall flat on my face, but not trying is no fun. I encourage you to try it too! If we don’t we may regret it. As John Greenleaf Wittier wrote (in his wonderful poem, "Maud Muller") 
For all sad words of tongue and pen, 
The saddest are these: "It might have been!"
I think one important thing about art (like poetry) is the opportunity it provides us to be image-bearers of God and create. It satisfies the soul into which God breathed the breath of life to create something unique, beautiful, meaningful, emotional, spiritual, and personal. There is a sense of satisfaction we experience whenever we are more like our God who is supremely satisfied in himself. This is true regarding holiness, and being incarnational, and serving others. And it is true regarding creating art. Because in all these things we are bringing God glory.

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