Bad Poet, No Biscuit
I have a friend in the poetry program here who swears up and down, side to side, that he hates poetry. I'm not talking about the kind of hatred that accompanies respect for but frustration with a body of artwork--that is, I hate opera because I do not understand it and it makes me feel like the country bumpkin I most likely am. No, my friend has a good understanding of the workings of a poem and poetry in general--and he seems to hate it all the same.
This whole I-have-a-friend-of-a-friend thing isn't meant to be a mask--I actually do
have a poet buddy who claims to hate poetry. But I suppose I should come clean: more often than not, I hate poetry too.
I know this is not wise, but I can't help myself. Sometimes I read Emily Dickinson and I want to pull my hair out. The Waste Land
was a waste of my time. Wordsworth and Coleridge are, in my opinion, drug-free cures to insomnia. I want to like these poets because that would satisfy the bourgeois student part of my heart, but I just can't bring myself to be moved by their work. And, more importantly, I don't think it is my job to work at liking these artists and the myriad of others that I haven't listed. Isn't that what art is supposed to do? Isn't art's responsibility to pull something out of its audience? Sometimes when I read poems, I feel that I am working harder than the artist. And that pisses me off.
This semester, I have the opportunity to teach an Introduction to Poetry class. I was told that teaching these classes is exciting because your students actually want to be there, as opposed to the university-mandated comp classes that everyone is forced to take. This is almost wholly incorrect. Out of my 30 students, about 6 have some affection for poetry. The rest of them don't care a stitch for poetry, simply biding their time in my class in hopes of getting that final humanities credit. I ask them, "Why do you dislike poetry?" I get several answers, all of which stem from the same root--the poetry we learned in school, the poetry that is being taught as representative of the genre as a whole is of the ambiguous, riddling variety. Yes, in school we all read "Dover Beach." Yes, we all read "Annabel Lee," and "Because I could not stop for Death," and "The Tyger." And they were all riddles--things we had to decode to get to the "real meaning" of the poem. By and large, this type of poetry doesn't excite me. I want art to teach me about life, not to provide some exercise, some opportunity to practice my critical thinking skills. Because, soon enough, that's all poetry becomes--a game to play, a riddle to decode. It becomes mechanical and cold, like it has for some of my students.
I love Sharon Olds
. She was my gateway poet, the person who made me care about poetry. I remember reading Satan Says
and feeling so close to her speaker, like she had taken the words--not from my mouth, because they hadn't even formed there yet, but from somewhere deep within me. I'd like to thank Olds
for her work, because I haven't felt that exhilarated about poetry since picking up her little red book. When I watch episodes of Intervention
, which is frankly pretty often, I can understand when the addicts say their continued drug use is all in chase of that first high. I've been waiting a long time for something to get me as excited as Satan Says
did. I've had to wade through a lot of muck without much reward.
My point is that I'm sick of the academy telling me what I should and should not like, and I'm sick of teaching my students--the majority of whom hate poetry, anyway--the so-called canon when I could be spending my time teaching them poetry that excites. I've told professors before that I enjoy about 10 percent of the poetry that I read. I thought this admission would be a nail in my coffin--proof that I didn't belong here in this wonderful program among these beautiful, poetry-loving people. But I've discovered that we all only like about a small portion of what we read. When I say I don't like Emily Dickinson, I'm not arguing that she has nothing to offer or that she shouldn't be taught. When I say I love Sharon Olds, I'm not arguing that she's the be-all, end-all or that everyone should count her as an influence. I'm asking that my love of her be respected, as well as my aversion to Dickinson.
It is difficult for people to accept that I'm not a fan of America's poetic mother; I've had many people try to reason with me, to convince me of her greatness: Her use of the dash is a way to maintain quatrains while still imposing a caesura that imitates a line break! "A narrow Fellow in the Grass" is brilliant because the poem's not really about the snake at all--it's about the unknown!
But there is no reasoning with taste. Dickinson does not move me. I don't care to figure out what she's trying to say. Does that make me a bad poet? Perhaps. Or perhaps there are dozens of poets out there, loathing Emily Dickinson in silence, waiting for someone else to say it first.