Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Language Poetry

So that's what it's called!

Former Utah Poet Laureate David Lee says he agrees with ( Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy) Collins when it comes to what he calls "language" poetry - poetry that focuses more on the words and sounds used and less on meaning or context. Part of the fault of the general public being driven away from poetry lies with the poetry community itself. "I think we have developed a form of poetry and we seem to glorify and push it, and many times, it's based on incoherence."

This a paragraph from the article: Poetic injustice. Christy Karras, Salt Lake Tribune.

Collins has become the poster child for "approachable" poetry in arguments in literary circles over whether poets should write for audiences or to please themselves. The debate is relevant to a real phenomenon: a decline in literary readership. After conducting a survey to see how much Americans read, the Association of American Publishers found "an ongoing and precipitous drop in the number of readers in this country, especially readers of fiction, poetry and drama. . . . The report shows that fewer than half of Americans over the age of 18 - only 46.7 percent - had read a novel, short story, play or poem in the preceding year." At the same time, poetry books have proliferated, as have programs teaching poetry, workshops and public poetry readings. But many argue that the interest in poetry is confined to a certain subset of the population.

Collins says he doesn't mind a challenging poem, as long as it's challenging for good reason. "Poetry really cultivates ambiguity. Poetry is a kind of greenhouse in which the ambiguity and ambivalence we feel in life, or a healthy lack of certitude, is healthy," he said. But he thinks poems should always draw in the reader - and as long as they do that, they accomplish their goal. "I favor poems that start simple and get more difficult later," he said. "Good accessibility is a condition in which the reader is freely admitted into the poem and welcomed into the poem."

On the flip side of the argument are writers like
Joan Houlihan, a poet and founding director of the Concord Poetry Center, who says Collins and other popular poets are lightweight and virtually interchangeable. In an essay, Houlihan wrote, "The Billy Collins poem . . . is also a Mary Oliver poem, a Rita Dove poem, a David Lehman poem, a Maya Angelou poem, among other contemporary poets, because it is a poem we can understand. Immediately. We feel no drive to delve. It is not a poem we need to analyze. There are no pesky layers of meaning. What you see is what you get."


Of course, the obvious question for me, a newcomer to all this, is - what does it matter? With the noted increase in poets, and poetry programs, etc., there will always be plenty of poems from both sides of the fence won't there? The important thing is to get the approachable forms of poetry onto bookshelves, into papers and magazines. Once touched by a poem, the reader may move forward in their poetry reading experience and seek out progressively more difficult works. Similar to other arts - children start with very approachable - but still excellent - music. Music is a great example isn't it? There are some kinds of music that I find very difficult to listen to - a bunch of squawking and unusual frenetic rhythms - but if I understood more about the instruments and about the music they are playing, the construction of the piece, the different chords and keys and time signatures - I might enjoy it more. I can't simply enjoy a piece like that because I know I should - Hmm, now it seems like I'm saying language poetry is more developed, refined, further along the evolutionary grid. I don't actually belive that.

To me, language poetry is an experiment. A stepping out into somewhere new. Like being naked in a plexiglass box and hanging above a busy street corner for 30 days and calling it art. I like that it challenges things and people. I like the poetry can do this too.

There is one workshop I hang out on where a critter responds to almost every poem "It's nice but I don't understand it." - believe me, these are very approachable poems! But he doesn't understand them. My friend Kris tells me this all the time: "I don't understand poetry. I think it's because I am dumb."

I think of my poems as approachable. Kinda boring most of the time. I don't expect they will ever stand out because of this fact. But I like them and they are a kind of legacy for my kids. At a recent workshop in my home town, I had one of the critters tell me he found the poem confusing - he didn't understand how 'July' could talk. I sensed that it is possible even simple metaphor is difficult for the average reader.


Blogger Bob Hoeppner said...

I find I'm almost always trying to balance the allusive and evocative with the direct and accessible. Perhaps the point is to never have the conviction that one has it all figured out, but to keep the experimental attitude. People definitely have varying capacities for comprehension. I used to belong to a critique group which practiced "always write for the most intelligent reader." Sounds kinda elitist to me now, but certainly dumbing down a poem has risks. People most readily understand what's familiar to them, and what's most familiar is cliche and the complacent truisms that people turn to instead of exerting the effort to think. I recently read (I think it was someone quoting Joyce Carol Oates) that people don't like poetry because they don't want to face the intensity of people's lives, neither others nor their own. So, much resulting poetry is bland. And then it's not read because it's homogenized boredom. You know it's bad when you hear a poet read in a voice that sounds as if they're bored with their own poem. I don't know if they're truly bored, or if the bored posture is perceived as being poetic. Well, I could go on and on about this...

5:42 AM  

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