First published in The Horror Writers Association Newsletter
April 1, 2012
So, I wrote a collection of poems that was published back in 2011 by Burning Effigy Press. Since then, the collection has gotten some attention — including a Bram Stoker Award nomination — and I’ve been interviewed a few times. I’ve discovered in the course of these conversations that a few themes keep cropping up: namely, what keeps people from reading poetry.
And here’s what I learned.
1. It intimidates you.
I’m not sure when poetry grew the stubble and fists of Jason Statham, but it intimidates a lot of people. Maybe it’s all those Shakespearean sonnets — if that’s what you think of when someone mentions poetry, I’m sorry. Truly. You’re afraid you won’t understand it, so you avoid it. I get it.
Have you tried a little Ambrose Bierce or even Neruda? I recommend avoiding the “hard stuff” and starting with “gateway” poets. Because if you pick up any of those 17th-century poets, you’re bound to hurt your brain. Also? They’re boring as all hell. Why would anyone put themselves through that kind of torture? You ask, “But isn’t William Blake, like, famous and stuff?” Sure, but he’s guaranteed to give you an intellectual concussion if you’re not accustomed to the work of that era. Instead, pop the top on some more modern poets and relax. Good poetry won’t wear you down. It feeds your soul in a way that nothing else does.
2. It doesn’t make sense.
Look at it this way. Some of you listen to some pretty wacky musicians like Tori Amos, Kate Bush, The Cocteau Twins, Lisa Gerard, or even foreign bands like Rammstein or that crazy Jay-Pop chick with the big eyelashes. Or opera. You have no hope of ever understanding that lot, but you listen to them all the same. It’s because you like the sound of the music, right? Think of poetry that way. Even if the overall concept doesn’t click, you’ll like the “music” of the words and images. As T.S. Eliot once said — that’s the dude who wrote the poems that inspired the musical Cats, but please don’t hold that against him — “Genuine poetry can communicate before it’s understood.”
That said, good poetry tends to make sense. Unless it was written in an era with a lot of fairly incomprehensible archaic references, it damn well should be understandable. If not, it’s probably crap. I mean, seriously, we’re trying to communicate. What good is it if it’s just a bunch of blather? None. None good, that’s what.
3. It’s bad.
Chances are, if you’ve been run over by a poem on Teh Intarwebs, it left wide black tread marks on your forehead. The word “awful” doesn’t begin to describe what hit you.
This happens because people think poetry is easy to write. There are so few words involved, they think, “Hey! I can do that!” So they duct tape together a bunch of mismatched metaphors that proceed to lope out of quasi-stanzas like something from The Island of Dr. Moreau. They pepper their verses with words even they don’t understand because they sound “cool.” And then they chop up the lines after every few words so that it looks good and poetical and stuff. But mostly they emote. Oscar Wilde once said that, “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.” And if there’s something amateur poets have, it’s plenty of genuine feeling. Multiply this times elebenty-hundred-thousands to the giga-power and that should give you some idea of your chances of finding something like this again on the Internets.
No wonder you don’t want to read poetry.
The solution? Ask people you know who read poetry what they like. Get recommendations. If they say, “My friend Arnie Humplegger who only publishes on his MySpace blog…But! He’s really, really gooood,” back away — quickly. Or, when someone hands your their Goth girlfriend’s self-published collection of verse entitled, “Batwings and Other Black Things”…RUN.
But if they say, “She’s been publishing for a while now, especially since she spent time at that Nicaraguan village during her Peace Corps days. Man, she’s amazing!” Chances are that’s someone who has spent more time living in the world than gazing at their lint-clogged navel or checking every ten seconds to see if someone “Liked” their poem on Facebook.
4. You’ve been told it’s bad.
Let’s face it: It’s not cool to read poetry. Your badass friends who are into gorenography don’t think it’s cool, either. They told you poetry sucks. Some of them might even have thick black tread marks on their foreheads. Or they were traumatized in college by reading Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder or Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.
Don’t listen to your friends! Chances are they have Wordsworth Poisoning.
5. You have Wordsworth Poisoning. (Don’t panic. It’s not entirely fatal.)
Many of us with a college education were traumatized by having to read William Wordsworth, the early 19th-century poet famous for writing, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” WARNING: READING THIS WILL KILL YOU.* If somehow you survived, the potential side effects of Wordsworth poisoning include headache, nausea, vomiting, blindness, deafness, and explosive diarrhea whenever cornered by a poem. These effects can last a lifetime and keep you from ever reading poetry again. And why would you? Getting drunk is more fun. At least the hangover results from having a good time rather than reading about “The Pansy at my feet/Doth the same tale repeat.”
6. You have Bukowski Poisoning. (Also not fatal.)
Bukowski revolutionized poetry by adding vast quantities of al-kee-hawl to his writing. Sometimes this worked and his poems were mind-bogglingly brilliant. And then sometimes it just looks like some fat-naked-drunk dude is shouting through his typewriter.
Maybe you read one of his louder poems and wondered if all modern poetry read like a street brawl with nose bleeds and pissed pants. Or thought, “Man! Modern poetry has a big case of The Weird.” Or whatever. Like the tequila that you blacked out on, you won’t touch it again.
7. It’s the wrong poetry.
This kind of gets back to the poisoning bits. If your first exposure to poetry back in the day had been something awesome — say, Edgar Allan Poe, bawdy Baudelaire or, hell, some Bruce Boston circa 1990 in Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine — then you might have gotten a taste for great dark poetry.
8. It’s for “pansies.”
On second thought, a little Bukowski poisoning might be good for you. Or maybe a lot of regular poison.
9. It forces you to concentrate.
Chaucer used to complain that poetry was difficult to write. “The life so short, the craft so long to learn.” Just to be clear: the man who wrote The Canterbury Tales thought poetry was hella hard to write. It’s as hard as anything else to write, if not harder, because there’s so much weight on every word.
As a result, reading a poem is much more like eating an amuse bouche or one of many courses at top-shelf restaurants like The French Laundry or L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. The dish might be small, but it’s exquisitely constructed, like an edible gem, with complex flavors that sing madrigals in your mouth. You fill up faster than you’d think with each course, too, because the food is so rich.
But people don’t want to savor literary morsels. That requires too much concentration. They want to wolf down every paragraph like a Big Mac and just get to the “good bits” — the gore, sex, midget wrestling, whatever. People prefer to skim rather than focus. Is it a byproduct of our electronic age or old-fashioned impatience? I dunno but too much MacDoo will give you a fat brain. Have a poem instead!
10. You’re too goddamned sober.
Poetry isn’t for people with a stick up their ass. It’s for people who have pulled the stick out of their ass. It’s for the living, the drinking, the damned, the fighting, the lusting, the loving — anyone who has opened their heart and had it knuckle-punched until it bled. It’s for thinkers, believers, skeptics, and plotters. If you have no sense of humor, don’t bother picking up a book of verse, because poets are pranksters. Yet you must let them steer, otherwise you’ll resist the ride and miss out on something wonderful.
So pour yourself a cocktail, get comfortable, and starting loving it.