Friday, January 31, 2020
Wild Fridays #4: Moonlight Musings
More of a vent than a musing, this time:
‘I’m so sick of homilies masquerading as poetry!’ I said to my friend as we browsed in a bookshop recently.
[Whilst a homily is usually thought of as having religious connotations, as in a sermon ... not necessarily. The most succinct and also general definition I can find is the Cambridge Dictionary’s: ‘A piece of spoken or written advice about how someone should behave.’]
And why should poetry not moralise or advise? No reason at all, so long as it does so in poetry! What I suddenly noticed that I’m very tired of is when the precepts are set as verse – and sold in whole books of! – but are just prosy statements chopped up into lines and stanzas.
I didn’t think it was going to bug me so much that I’d want to vent about it here, so I didn’t save any examples of what I mean. But just think of some old platitude and you’ll get the idea. (‘Home is where the heart is.’ ‘It never rains but it pours.’) And then chop it into lines which ignore any poetic possibilities for the pauses. E.g. (making it up on the spot):
Never step / into the same / river twice.
If she / doesn’t love you / find someone / who does.
Don’t look / over / your shoulder.
(Hmmm, didn’t require much effort, I must say, to come up with those little gems.)
On the shelves I was looking at were volumes of this kind of thing in amongst the likes of Marianne Moore, Pablo Neruda, Frank O’Hara, Denise Levertov, Audre Lorde....
‘Quick, look at this. Just the first verse,’ I said to my friend, thrusting a page of Marianne Moore under her nose. We both gasped with relief at how good it was. Wonderful language – creating wonderful pictures in our heads and tinglings in our spines!
We became reluctant to open volumes by contemporaries whose names we didn’t know! But I’m glad to say we did find some real poetry amongst them too.
So how did those other things get to be on the same shelves? And how did they even get published? I was so quick to put them back on the shelves, I didn’t look to see who the publishers were. The books were very nicely produced though, very professional-looking. Perhaps the publishers, whoever they are, take these writers on because they know such books will sell – to some non-discerning buyers.
Yet why not put them in the Self Help section instead? Perhaps because the ideas are not very original, and they wouldn’t sell unless dressed up as verse? Labelled poetry, it seems, they do sell. Otherwise they wouldn’t keep being published, you’d think. I actually saw a series by one author, which suggests that people must even be willing to buy successive volumes.
On Instagram a few weeks ago I saw some ads for a new young woman poet who was said to be taking Instagram by storm, posting micropoetry that everyone was going crazy for. I watched her interviewed on YouTube. She was full of confidence, and the belief she’s providing a service. Well maybe she is, and good luck to her – only, PLEASE, Ms X, don’t call your little bites of potted precepts poetry! (I looked her up. I read them. They just aren’t.)
It’s doubly sad when there is so much good poetry on Instagram – much of it written by you, dear readers. Where are our hordes of admirers, as opposed to the discerning few?
Is it, perhaps, the nature of real poetry that it doesn't appeal to the lowest common denominator?
I know that members of this community quite often write in ways meant to be uplifting, or reassuring, or sharing what spiritual insights or pieces of wisdom we may have acquired. Some of us like to express particular religious points of view or share our personal epiphanies. None of that is what I’m objecting to. We all write poetry! OK, some of us also write stories some of the time – and they too are thoughtfully crafted. In verse or prose, we do our preaching (when/if we do) with some elegance and wit.
Surely, if a message is important, it deserves to be said as well as one can. Even if it’s not deeply significant but instead light-hearted and ephemeral, I think half the fun is in making something which readers will enjoy.
Neither am I talking about beginner poets who are still learning their craft, or refining it. We’ve all been there. (Perhaps we always are.) In a community like this, we see each other develop as we keep on writing. The thing is, we do develop; we do care about the words, about the way we say things. We’ve understood that if what we say matters, how we say it is vital for it to reach and move people.
I’m not referring to matters of style, either. Again, this community is a fine example of how many different styles and approaches are encompassed in contemporary poetry. We have Robin (Old Egg)’s apparently simple ditties of love and romance, meticulously yet unobtrusively crafted; Susie’s sharply succinct word-plays; Rajani’s philosophical questionings couched in superb language and apt metaphors; Sanaa’s lush sensuality and delight in the sumptuous music of words; Kim’s and Joel’s different and equally enthralling recreations of the natural world in their personal environments.... We have people using all manner of forms and techniques. When we write our prose stories, too, we give attention to the way we write them. (I was recently told that one of mine was ‘melodious’. I was thrilled – having paid much attention to its sound and rhythm.)
Why do readers keep accepting that other stuff? It’s not even that it’s bad advice, as a rule. On the contrary, most of it reiterates current insights into behaviour, which have become popular because they do contain some truth (if little depth). Fine – but why do publishers, readers, and the authors themselves accept it as poetry?
The Instagram sensation makes her posts look pretty with flowers and fancy calligraphy, but that doesn’t disguise the banality of her words. Yet people must be lapping them up. Is it the greeting card school of poetry? No – such verses at least rhyme and have metre. Perhaps it is BECAUSE they don't require much from the reader, who can then move rapidly to the next momentary distraction from life.
Or has nothing really changed? Was it ever thus? Is it simply that we never get to see the bad poetry of earlier eras because it hasn’t lasted?
Hard to imagine, isn’t it (for us) that someone would crave fame as a poet, with so little understanding of the necessary work required? Even harder to imagine they’d want to churn out so-called poems with none of the qualities of poetry! But it seems the poetasters have always been around.
['Poetaster' is an old word, invented for a reason. ‘A derogatory term applied to bad or inferior poets. Specifically, poetaster has implications of unwarranted pretensions to artistic value. The word was coined in Latin by Erasmus in 1521.’ – Wikipedia.]
It’s alarming to think the words of the current ones may last a lot longer, due to being digitally preserved!
This whole issue was annoying me so much that I needed to let off steam. Thanks for your indulgence! But now what? (I might even say, ‘So what?’) We can’t legislate against bad taste, or even ignorance.
The only thing we can do, I suppose, is continue to write our own words as well as we possibly can, and share them as widely as we may. E.g. blogging; spoken word performances; videos; journals and anthologies, digital or paper ... yes, all the things we already do. Hopefully the market for good poetry, even if smaller, will last longer.
If you have any suggestions – or just opinions – I’d love you to share your thoughts. Please use the comments.)
Material shared in this post is presented for study and review. Poems, photos, and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, usually the authors. The moon photo is my own. The bookshelf photo is a free download from Pixabay, in the Public Domain (didn't think to take any of my own in the bookshop).