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.”
“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.
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.