Friday, January 13, 2012

Some Thoughts on Poetry

If all forms of written expression could be considered a family, poetry would definitely be the odd uncle, the spinster aunt, the strange cousin. It is, without question, the most subjective form of writing. Arguably, scientific and technological writing aside, it can be the most intricate and complex. For a number of reasons, many people are uncomfortable with poetry much above the nursery rhyme/limerick level, and indeed it can be both obscure and intimidating. Even the simplest of poetry is probably far more difficult to translate from one language to another than prose, simply because words that rhyme in one language do not rhyme in another.

The most elemental poems have a rhythm you can literally beat out on a drum ("da-dum-da-dum-da-dum-da-dah, da-dum-da-dum-da-dah"). Like the various forms of prose, poetry has certain set rules of which I am largely ignorant but which, like the rules of prose, are, I gather, shot so full of exceptions as to resemble a Swiss cheese. Most people expect a poem to rhyme, but it doesn't have to. I think it's probably generally agreed that the most important thing a poem must have is a definite sense of rhythm, of meter, to the words, even when there is no rhyme.

Poetry and news reporting are at opposite ends of the writing spectrum, with all other forms falling somewhere between the two. Interestingly, news writing and poetry require an economy of words to convey their message. But whereas news writing is among the simplest, most straight-forward, and easiest to understand forms of writing, poetry can be the most difficult.

It's not that poetry can't be simple, as the above mentioned nursery rhymes and limericks verify, and the simpler the poem, the more people can relate to it without feeling they are being challenged or their intelligence threatened. Emily Dickinson and Dorothy Parker are two very different types of poet, yet they share the ability to say complex things in the simplest possible way.

It's doubtful that any other form of writing evokes a stronger or more visceral response, either positive or negative, than poetry. The power and beauty of poetry lies in the careful selection of words calculated to compress thought into the smallest possible package, so that relatively few words convey the broadest and most vivid mental images.

I think it's safe to say that people, as a whole, tend to view poetry with a disquieting suspicion, charging (often rightly) that it is too often abstract or obtuse. Those who enjoy abstraction and/or the obtuse tend to get it. Those who don't, don't, and for many--including me--there is a vague sense of resentment in the implication that if I was as smart as I thought I was...or as I should be...I'd have understood it. If I don't, obviously it's my fault. Poetry smacks, in the minds of many, of elitism, snobbery, and assumed intellectual superiority. That poets seem drawn to archaic and ponderous words and obscure illusions doesn't help.

I have subscribed to The New Yorker magazine for years (okay, primarily for the cartoons). I can honestly say that I am utterly incapable of understanding one poem out of one hundred the magazine publishes. I find that frustrating, and I protect my easily bruised ego by telling myself that the magazine deliberately puts them in there as examples of the Emperor's New Clothes--to get readers to "oooh" and "aaaah" over pure gibberish only because they fear they'll appear stupid if they simply admit they don't get it.

There are poems I love and poems I simply cannot force myself through. I like haiku because it is, to me, probably the most compact form of poetry. It is, in a way, a distillation of distillations. Good haiku is the Turkish espresso of poetry--the distilled essence of thought.

I dabble in poetry myself, and believe that writing poetry is good practice for anyone wanting to write more concisely. I stand in awe of beautiful poetry as I stand in awe of beautiful prose. But in the end, everything still all boils down to simple truth that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please take a moment to check out his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs ( ).

No comments: