poetry


When I came downstairs, K. was sitting in the sunny window flipping through Aquamarine, by Raymond Carver. “These aren’t really poems,” he said, turning pages at a speed that prohibited reading. “they’re kind of prose poems.” Now, Carver’s work is written in free verse, but I didn’t argue with what I think he meant: the poems in Aquamarine are largely narrative and personal and deal with the humbler details of life, e.g. a man’s reflecting that lighting a cigarette in repose is like after sex, but not really; it’s the kind of thing aficionados might call “poetry of the humble quotidian,” and there’s nothing wrong with that, except that I don’t particularly like Raymond Carver’s poetry either (I find his gifts better suited to prose), so I’m not going to bother arguing. There are other poets who deal with the humble quotidian, though — Robert Creeley, for example — whose work I think is genius, and who would be ill-suited to prose (as anyone who’s read Creeley’s prose knows).

However, this little interchange got me thinking about poetry and how we read it. A few weeks ago K. (who is a more credulous and patient reader than most, despite my unwitting defamation here) was flipping through Michael Palmer’s poetry collection The Lion Bridge. Later, he said to me, “How do you read that stuff? How? Because I feel like I’m doing it wrong.” Apparently, he had more interest in Palmer than in Carver (and I tend to agree) as a poet, but his befuddlement, and the celerity with which Carver’s pages were flipping this afternoon, made me wonder if we’re losing the ability to see poetry at all.

I had developed an explanation for reading poetry, one that sounded reasonable, one that had something to do with holistic experience of language and the importance of reading for sound and (verbal, visual) pattern in addition to narrative/meaning, but I never got the chance to give it. The reading of poetry seems to be growing increasingly problematic, however, maybe for the same reason one of my students recently told me that, when texting, she often leaves the “h” out of “when” to save time: language is becoming a means of transmitting information and less a formal experience in its own right, and as we habituate ourselves to reading for the simplest apparent meaning, we lose the ability to appreciate nuance. Thus some of Creeley’s beautiful understatement, such as this poem, called “A Token”:

My lady
fair with
soft
arms, what

can I say to
you --words, words
as if all
worlds were there.

This poem, a poem that always leaves me breathless with awe at its delicate economy, becomes merely prosaic in the eyes of someone who is reading for meaning, who has taught him- or herself to disregard all cues that don’t lead to a coherent message. The pauses are meaningless to these people; in fact, if you listen to a bunch of under-twenties talking to each other, you’ll see why: the spoken language is becoming less and less inflected, and we may be moving towards sentence stress rather than word stress. Ordinarily, that would strike me as a pleasantly Romance phenomenon, but in our weightier language, you’ll find that it’s infuriating to listen to, not least because the emphasis on getting from one word to another as quickly as possible means that the words themselves are chosen from whatever is closest at hand and the whole is presented in muttering monotone.

I’m starting to think we should reinstate Elocution as a public-school requirement.

The problem here, however, is bigger than just failing to savor the sound of words. The problem has something to do with a failure to savor the form of language at all, mostly because the necessary degree of mastery has become so rare that it’s onerous for most people to read at all. Language and concrete poetries are out, but what about New (or Old, for that matter) Formalism? Surely rhyme and meter provide, at least, a predictable (and therefore transparent) form for verse?

Not so, though. Just as poetry that insists on language baffles those whose scanners are set only on gleaning information, poetry that insists on form (and which can often sacrifice meaning to get there) seems childish and silly to these readers, like a graceless mock-up of Dr. Seuss.

No matter how I slice it, I keep coming up with the verdict that poetry is becoming totally unreadable. For in order to be readable in the current climate, it has to be formally invisible, which precludes the idea of verse at all.

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I have become increasingly dubious about Kenneth Branagh. He’s jowly, he’s pompous, and let’s be honest: that bleach job in Hamlet made him look like a bloated and badly aging version of Spike, the evil-cum-evil vampire Buffy alternately rejected and shagged as her series died its painfully slow death. But I have to give him one thing: he immortalized Henry V’s courtship scene for me. Forever. So much so that, as I was just trying to justify Shakespeare’s genius to a student of mine, my head was full of nothing but a brash and smirking Branagh asking Emma Thompson if any of her neighbors could tell whether she loved him. I’ve read that scene dozens of times, and it’s genius, but I have to admit I only noticed how genius after that fateful day as a high school freshman, sitting next to my nail-biting friend in the theatre and quivering at Branagh’s sexy audacity.

There. I said it.

Go on, y’all. Your Netflix is waiting.