What good is poetry?

"Ciardi Himself," a collection of essays on poetry by John Ciardi
“Whenever we have let great language into our heads, we have been richer for it.”

I stumbled upon a great find while wasting away time in a used bookstore recently.

America poet John Ciardi published a collection of essays on poetry back in 1989.

Finding this book coincided with a discussion I’ve been having with a colleague who has expressed a desire to better appreciate poetry. I had been coming up short with a simple and direct explanation for what I knew in my heart to be true.

This one passage was worth far more than the 4 bucks and change I spent on Ciardi’s book:

“Because it is an act of language, a good poem is deeply connected with everything are and do. For language is one of the most fundamental activities in which human beings engage. Take away language, and you take away most of our ability to think and to experience. Enrich language, and you cannot fail to enrich our experience. Whenever we have let great language into our heads, we have been richer for it.”




Poetry Wars

Mary Karr
Mary Karr

Poet and author Mary Karr really stirred the pot last week when she dropped a truth bomb on The New Yorker, and one of the most revered member of the poetry establishment.

On her Facebook page, Mary offered made her friends a hilarious offer:

“A thousand bux to anybody who can explain this dopey Ashbery twaddle. He makes no sense & gets raved about by all the literati. Wins every prize. Nice guy. Waste of time. Snap out of it @NewYorker ‪#‎theemperorhasnoclothes”

The poet she’s calling out is John Ashbery, who has indeed won every major American poetry honor, including the Pulitzer.

The poem Mary points to is “Dangerous Asylum,” published in The New Yorker’s January 18 edition.

The New Yorker's taste in poetry has been questioned
The New Yorker’s taste in poetry has been questioned.

Good for Mary! This poem is an example of the opaque word sausage that gives modern poetry a bad name. I don’t mind working a little bit to understand a poem.  But there needs to be a payoff, or I feel cheated. After reading “Dangerous Asylum,” my primary insight is that “well, that’s 3 minutes of my life that I will never get back.”

If the point is that life is absurd, we are all alone, and we will never be able to truly know one another, there are more beautiful, more elegant, more engaging, more efficient, and more effective ways to say it.

Mary’s Facebook post stimulated tons of comments.  They ranged from gratitude to her for calling bullshit, to expressions of envy of Ashbery’s success.

One commenter blamed the whole sorry situation on the privilege of “conservative men” with “old ideas.”  (Not sure that’s quite it.  I’m a pretty conservative man with old ideas, and I don’t care for the poem either.)

My favorite comment:  Cool kid poetry to inspire feelings of cluelessness.”

I do not know the poet’s heart.  Mary calls him a “nice guy,” but if his poetry is any indication (and by their works ye shall judge them), he’s saying “I’m smarter and more hip than you.  I’m a member of an exclusive inner circle you’ll never be a part of.”

If that’s really what’s going on here, I hate it.

Now, I prefer poems that make connections, that stir up courage and hope, that evoke fear and pity.

I understand there may even be a time and place for poems of alienation, despair and disgust.  At least they make me feel something interesting.

In the end, perhaps, the worst reaction a poem can get is not alienation, despair or disgust, but, rather, indifference.  If you are writing to make me feel clueless, insignificant, or inferior … I will stop wasting my time on you.

I strive to write poems that would touch my own heart.  You can see some examples on this blog.

Poems about writing poetry


It seems like, eventually, every poet writes about writing poetry.

One of my favorites is Raymond Carver’s “Reaching”:


He knew he was
in trouble when,
in the middle
of the poem,
he found himself
for his thesaurus
and then Webster’s
in that order.

What writer hasn’t found themselves in just that situation?

Billy Collins, writing more about poetry students than poetry, wrote this in his Introduction to Poetry:

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Isn’t that just like students — so desperate to capture “what it really means,” that they beat a poem to death?

This is my contribution to the vein of poems about poetry.  Just a bit of a drawn out metaphor, really.

As the Oyster Forms the Pearl

As the oyster forms the pearl,
So the poet pens the verse
As balm for the current ache
Born out of the ancient curse.

As the oyster feels compelled
To shellac the sandy grain,
So the poet senses the urge
To transmogrify the pain.

So the pearl grows rich and round
As its luster covers the sand.
So the verse unseen takes form
In its way, designed unplanned.

Sad the pearl that lies unseen
In the depths of the murky sea.
Sad the verse that dies unheard
In the heart clandestinely.