Saturday, April 9, 2011

Welcome to Nat'l Poetry Month - Part 2

Twelve of us are sitting in nooks and crannies of a downtown book store on a Thursday evening. The students have notebooks flopped open and are scractching out words between ruled lines.

I'm at a table with a computer and a printer near the front door where the sign at my elbow catches patrons' eyes as they walk in the door.
 "Really? That's cheap." a customer says to me.

"Only one American dollar," I underscore. "All proceeds go to charity. We'll write about anything you want."

 "Something about this weather? My back pains?"

"Sure. You'll get a laser-printed custom-made poem in twenty minutes, a poem that will last a lifetime."

Welcome to Rent-a-Poet, an event I dreamed up for my poetry workshop students. With this exercise we're stretching the city limits of a place called "Creativity" (can we write on demand and under severe time constraints?). At the same time we're putting nice little poems into the pockets of people who a minute ago were totally bereft of such.

Most of all, everyone, including me, is having fun.

This is an odd outcome when one considers I'm the guy who used to absolutely hate poetry.

O' How Poetry Doth Sucketh!
I suppose it began in grade school. The poetry I was exposed to tended to be cobwebbed and not about subject matter I felt drawn to. A poem about a jet pilot or an astronaut? I would have liked that! But no such luck.

Step right up! Get your rhyming words!
And the language was a treacle of old sounding English. While it rolled musically off the tongue, it sounded artificial to me.

As did the end rhyming. What was with all the rhyming? It reminded me of books read to me as a youngster and I was no longer a child.

The last problem was that the poetry was presented by teachers as a sort of mystery we expected to puzzle out.

Here's how it worked:

We would read a poem, barely grasp what it was about. Great! We were present to be educated,were we not? So tediously, line by line, we had to examine individual words and discover half an hour later, "Oh! That's what the poet was saying!"

Who had the patience for such literary games?

Poetry? I loathed it. And that would be my attitude for decades.

The Poetry Pagan Gets Saved
When I went to graduate school I received some bad news. I had been accepted into my MFA program as a promising ficiton writer, but guess what? The curriculum called for all poets to take one fiction workshop and now, too late, I saw it coming: all fiction writers were required to sign up for a semester of poetry workshop.

 What? Me? The person who hates poetry with all the undying effusive, overheated passion of a spewingingly verbose romantic poet? I was going to have to write @#!$%@%*& poems?

Read some books of poetry, try writing some poems
and a person might even end up liking this stuff...
 It was an interesting semester. I discovered, among other things, that I had no idea about the wealth and range of poetry possibilities available to me. It turned out I could write a poem about a jet pilot, if I wanted. And the poem didn't have to rhyme or be written in anything other than the everyday speech that most appealed to me.

The important thing was that my poem move. That it have a sort of rhythm, a burning, palpable urge behind it. That it go somewhere and take me and the reader to some place or angle of life we hadn't seen before.

The best thing, as far as I was concerned, was that a good poem was hard to write. I could revise a single poem upwards of twenty times and it was just starting to sound slightly good...

I liked that challenge. I was the man who hated brussel sprouts, but came to love them, not by eating them (that would happen later), but by being compelled to grow them.

I finally "got" what a poem was all about by being placed inside the finely meshed verbal gears and wheels of one, the one that I wrote myself.

Reading Poetry
It was natural that I started to read some poetry and discover favorite poets. The first was May Swenson. She actually had poems about astronauts!

However, there were many other poets whose work I failed to appreciate. It was too obtuse, cerebral for my taste. One of the poets I studied with in grad school, Edward Hirsch (a poet of luminescent clarity whom I like) wrote a book called How to Read a Poem, and Fall in Love with Poetry. Did I fall in love with poetry? Not quite. I began to like it a great deal. It was more like I was now willing to very selectively date certain poets from time to time, but I would never marry one, if you know what I mean.

But that's the point: a person doesn't have to like all poetry ever written to appreciate the art form and enjoy it from time to time.

Listening to Poetry
Some of the greatest moments of literary pleasure I've ever had were when we had the opportunity to bring major visiting poets come to our campus. There's nothing like hearing poetry well read by its author. This is actually a fairly rare occurence.


The incomparable Li-Young Lee
doing his poetry thing...
Not with Li-Young Lee.

No poet reads better and slower than Mr. Young. He goes around the country dazzling audiences with his poems.

Each poem is introduced in a humble, personable way. There's nothing dry or dusty or academic about Mr. Lee. Though today he's a very gentle man, he describes his teenhood as a time when "I wore around my neck dog collar with spikes sticking out" and he was into martial arts.

At our university Li-Young Lee read to an audience of over 400 undergrads. Most of them walked out afterwards saying, "I thought poetry sucked, but I liked that!"

The other poet whose readings are in a class of their own is Galway Kinnell. As one person said of the voice this poet has been endowed with, "Galway could read the phone book and you'd be entranced."

Galway: La voce of poetry...
Kinnell can recite some poems by memory, a rarity these days. His poems "in concert" rumble past--like weather. They are the most intimate human vibrations. You hear him and suddenly you feel more present, more alive.

Galway Kinnell is getting on in years yet he remains another poet quite capable of changing the minds of those who think they hate poetry.

Poems for Sale, Cheap!
So I've come to believe poetry is not so bad. A poem sometimes works to surprise us or call our attention to something we otherwise would miss and a poem can even make us laugh (Billy Collins). That's reason enough to expose more people to poetry by taking it into non-traditional venues.

Just think: What if Wal-mart endorsed poetry and had books of it at every checkout stand? What if you could find poems hanging on hooks for 25 cents each in the bread aisle of the grocery store? What if at the restaurant instead of an after-dinner mint you received a complimentary poem? Or your fortune cookie was stuffed with, yes, a poem?

I think I'm getting carried away. And purists will argue that a poem will never be a retail item. Like buying a loaf of bread, a Coke, a newspaper. There's too much human blood and soul poured into a good poem.

I guess so, but I still like those little one-dollar poems my students wrote when they "rented" out their poetic abilities. The customers seemed so pleased walking away. Sometimes they sought out the student who wrote the poem and thanked them. Sometimes they asked for the student to sign the poem.

And all we're talking about is a few words. Words on the page. But when it works it's like nothing else. - V.W.

Coming: What is poetry anyway?

1 comment:

  1. hello i spam you!!

    Love the count down timer though!

    Godd luck!