Why should we write poetry? Why should we read the poetry others write? In this day and age of academic poets, a lack of real best sellers, and a general societal silence on the art of poetry, it seems that more and more people are trying to write poetry today without having a clear idea of what they're trying to do, or what they're trying to say. So we get a lot of poetry around here that's half-assed, simplistic, whiny, and lost. That's a problem. People go around eating this junk food poetry, thinking it's good for them, when they should be reading something better. But instead of sending you running away from here to go find something better, I'd prod you in another direction. Improve your poetry and improve the way you read the poetry of others. Because it is only in the reading and writing of poetry that we can keep the art alive and healthy. But for the sake of clarity, I'll provide a method of reading and writing. A way to make your ideas clear and to guide your thoughts. A basic guide to what I feel poetry is, what it does, where its place is, and what it is not.
Simply, poetry is expressive. A good poem should attempt to express more than a basic emotion. Poetry should try to express something beyond an emotion. What is the major idea of the poem? Yeah, breakup poetry is cathartic, but where's the substance? Look at great poetry. There's a point there. Take as an example Shelley's poem "Ozymandias:"
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Let's take a moment to examine this poem. The poem develops a sense of the past through the first line and immediately dives into a sense of impermanence in the second line. The interplay of importance and permanence weaves through the poem, developing a message about immortality that is readily visible to the reader. A point of importance is clearly expressed and illustrated for the reader, giving the poem a weighty substance underneath the language.
Collectively, literature in the West has developed what Robert Hutchins has termed a "Great Conversation," the idea that through allusions, all the great works of Western literature talk to each other. For the purposes of this manifesto, I'll expand that term to include thematic concepts as well. This expanded Great Conversation traces thematic threads through all literature, and anything written should be engaging on some level with the themes and concerns of the Great conversation, at least on some level. Consider again "Ozymandias," then read this translation of Horace's "Ode 1.11:"
Don't ask (it's forbidden to know) what final fate the gods have
given to me and you, Leuconoe, and don't consult Babylonian
horoscopes. How much better it is to accept whatever shall be,
whether Jupiter has given many more winters or whether this is the
last one, which now breaks the force of the Tuscan sea against the
facing cliffs. Be wise, strain the wine, and trim distant hope within
short limits. While we're talking, grudging time will already
have fled: seize the day, trusting as little as possible in tomorrow.
Looking at this poem, it is immediately apparent that Horace, hundreds of years before Shelley, held the same thematic concerns close to his heart. But while Horace's concern is against the anxiety of time and the desire for immortality, Shelley takes that same theme and develops it into an examination of the realities of worldly immortality. Many other themes track through Western literature, and poetry engages with other poems and reaffirms, refutes, and posits new ideas. This interaction between literature is the soul of the Great Conversation, and every writer should participate.
Poetry should also develop a keen sense of person. One of the great failings of the American educational system is the way in which English classes have sold their souls to the New Critics. Granted, it's seductive for a teacher to talk about comma counts and the purpose of the number of adverbs and the meaning that can be derived only from the text, but it's a criminal betrayal of the reality of poetry. Poetry is intensely personal. Often the "I" in a poem is not an impersonal, removed narrator, but is the "I" of the poet himself. Much poetry should be read this way, and the poet should be mindful about the "I" they develop through their poetry. For an example, take this poem from Amiri Baraka called "Numbers, Letters:"
If you're not home, where
are you? Where'd you go? What
were you doing when gone? When
you come back, better make it good.
What was you doing down there, freakin' off
with white women, hangin' out
with Queens, say it straight to be
understood straight, put it flat and real
in the street where the sun comes and the
moon comes and the cold wind in winter
waters your eyes. Say what you mean, dig
it out put it down, and be strong
I can't say who I am
unless you agree I'm real
I can't be anything I'm not
Except these words pretend
to life not yet explained,
so here's some feeling for you
see how you like it, what it
reveals, and that's me.
Unless you agree I'm real
that I can feel
Whatever beats hardest
at our black souls
I am real, and I can't say who
I am. Ask me if I know, I'll say
yes, I might say no. Still, ask.
I'm Everett LeRoi Jones, 30 yrs old.
A black nigger in the universe. A long breath singer,
wouldbe dancer, strong from years of fantasy
and study. All this time then, for what's happening
now. All that spilling of white ether, clocks in ghostheads
lips drying and rewet, eyes opening and shut, mouths churning.
I am a meditative man. And when I say something it's all of me
saying, and all the things that make me, have formed me, colored me
this brilliant reddish night. I will say nothing that I feel is
lie, or unproven by the same ghostclocks, by the same riders
always move so fast with the words slung voer their backs or
in saddlebags, charging down Chinese roads. I carry some words,
some feeling, some life in me. My heart is large as my mind
this is a messenger calling, over here, over here, open your eyes
and your ears and your souls; today is the history we must learn
to desire. There is no guilt in love
In this poem, Baraka lays his soul on the page for all to see, developing a true sense of "I" when dealing with the problems of his reality in New York. The same idea of classification is developed early, seen in the title as this poem is an anxiety of classification. The important thing in this poem is the stanza about Everett LeRoi Jones. Here, Baraka inserts himself into a poem in such a way that only the staunchest New Critic could possibly think that poetry is impersonal. Most poetry should be as personal as a journal, since the poetry comes from inspiration within, or inspiration without filtered through your self.
But there's an exception to every rule, and this one is no exception. Sometimes, the "I" in a poem is not necessarily the true "I." In these cases, once the disconnect has been established, the appropriate thematic questions to ask are not about how the life of the author has influenced the work, but why the author would choose to see things through the lens of a fabricated personality, and sometimes it would even be appropriate to question the fabrication of the "I" in question altogether. These are things that should always be considered when dealing with an "I" that is not personal.
Poetry is also beautiful. There should be a beauty in your words. Or, if there is not a beauty, there should be a reason for the dissonance. Pastoral scenes evoke much different images than industrial scenes, and as such require a completely different language to paint. The beauty of your language should always be at the forefront of your mind when you write a poem. Use the literary devices. Use forms if the forms reinforce the image there will be more on this later. But above all, make your poetry sing. Poetry should be music with no tune, art with no image. Poetry is the expression of language as an art. Take for an example, this poem, "Parthenopi," by Michael Waters:
Once we beheld the brilliance of our estate
reflected in the haloed serenity of the girl
who prepared the basketful of cucumbers for salad,
slicing each nub into watery wheels,
columns of coins in the egg-white bowl.
Then she'd lift each miniature transparency
as she'd seen the priest flourish the Host,
thumb the serrated blade
to nick the green, then twist her wrist
to peel back the dust-plumbed skin, the rubbery shavings
heaping a wild garden, unspoiled Eden, on the wooden counter.
Again and again she consecrated each wafer.
We basked in her patience, that rapt transportation,
her bell-shaped, narrowing eyelids as she spun
one papery sun, then the next, her perfect happiness,
smoke from the blackened grillwork wreathing her hair,
the fat of the slaughtered lamb hissing in the fire.
Her name - we'd asked our waiter - was Parthenopi, "little virgin."
We were still a couple then, our summer's lazy
tasks to gather anecdotes toward one future,
we shared and touching particular
to be recited over baked brie and chilled chardonnay
in the grasp of some furious, if distant, winter.
"Parthenopi," one of us might say, chiming a glass,
but the common measure of love is loss.
The cucumbers glistened in oil and thyme.
Regardless of your opinion about the content of the poem, one thing is certain: the images Waters creates are beautiful. A subject so simple as a cook preparing a salad in a restaurant can, in the hands of a poet, become a beautiful development of life and a picture of the beauty seen everywhere. Not all poems develop this same sense of beauty. Some would focus on the flowers outside the restaurant. Others would focus on the labor practices, or the unhealthy effect of the wood-burning grill, but no matter the subject matter, the poet should always aspire to capturing a measure of beauty, of music, from the language they're molding. It's this fact that makes poetry so hard to translate. Every language has its own intrinsic beauty, and a translation is only the palest reflection of such beauty. Be beautiful in your poetry. Otherwise, why write at all?
But sometimes, beauty is not its own reward. Sometimes, more purpose is required than just the desire to produce something beautiful. Or even, when no more purpose is required, you should still sit down and look at the finished product, because a poem can be like a microbe: some are wildly beneficial, most are neutral, but some can be deadly. Poetry can have effects far beyond the simple surface content of the poem. Poems can become anthems, rallying cries, examples of degeneracy, and many other things. This is the purpose of poetry: to grow beyond its original self and become something living. How? Through interaction with the world and the reader.
Unlike most other art forms, poetry is a balm for the soul. The poet can take an idea that would be abhorrent in prose or film and inexpressible in another medium, and create something that truly captures the realities and pains not just of the poet, but also of so many others. This power is possibly greater even than the Grand Conversation; most of the time it is certainly more relevant. But let's take a look. Here's Philip Larkin's poem "This Be The Verse:"
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.
How many teenagers have felt exactly the same way? In this poem, Larkin may be expressing a sentiment that is very near and dear to his own heart, but it simultaneously universal. It's this development of emotional touchstones that allows poetry to be a balm for the soul: while a novel may be able to illustrate that other have been through the same thing, poetry illustrates that others have felt the exact same way in such a way that no other medium is able to replicate. Poetry bares the soul to heal not only your soul, but also the souls of others.
Beyond the personal healing, another purpose of poetry is the exploration of the nuance of language. We get so caught up in language, either the tyrannical enforcement of the esoteric rules of language that were kludged together over hundreds of years, or the apparent need to develop ersatz insight through an overwhelming assault of vocabulary. Poetry should not be an exercise in nor subjected to either of these. Poetry is about discovering economy of language and the nuances present in the simplest components of language. Many of the greatest poems are simple, both in their vocabulary and in their message. A master of this economy of language is a dialect poet, working not in the language of aged or academic poetry, but in the language of common people, illustrating essential ideas and participating in the Great Conversation in their own voice. An example is Gwendolyn Brooks and her poem "We Real Cool:"
THE POOL PLAYERS.
SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
The sentiments developed here are simple to see through Brooks' use of the language of the everyday urban Black in the 1970s. Brooks doesn't attempt to color her poetry with the flowery words of a culture that is not hers. Such an act would ring of disingenuity and undercut the important messages of the poem. This is not to say that poetry shouldn't explore a wider vocabulary, but that poetry should not aspire to be an illustration of vocabulary. The point should always be primary, not secondary, to the language.
Poetry also serves to explore the ideas that the poet, that society, that the reader might not really want to have exposed in their face. Working with the cathartic qualities of poetry, poetry's ability to take the dreadful and make it beautiful emphasizes the connections not just between poems, but also between the poet and the reader. The reader not only gains the previously discussed healing, but also an insight into something society might just want to ignore or marginalize. Poetry should aspire to deal with the hard issues that novelists might shirk. This point is less important today as the artistic environment is so much more permissive than it has been even sixty years in the past, but the personal connections that poetry develops, both with the poet and the reader, make it imperative that poetry explore the harder side of life. Take for an example Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl:"
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the
starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the
supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of
cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan
angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant eyes hallucinating Arkansas
and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene
odes on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in
wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt
of marijuana for New York,
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or
purgatoried their torsos night after night
with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and
This brief quote from the much longer main work of the poem illustrates how Ginsberg reached into his own experience, and into the art of poetry to deal with his own anxieties about homosexuality, insanity, drug use, and his place in the world as a member of counterculture. But at the same time, Ginsberg created a poem where the reader can connect and feel the same issues and use the poem to help release their own anxieties about these same questions and more. Poetry should aspire to not answer these hard questions and issues, but to merely talk about them. Anything else is a waste of the paper it's written on.
We've talked at length about what poetry is maybe a bit optimistically, it is probably more accurate to say what poetry should aspire to be so some time should be taken to talk about what poetry is NOT. Many young people, especially when introduced to poetry through the public schools, develop these misconceptions about the nature and art of poetry, and as such color their readings of great poems with these misconceptions and scour their own writing with these sandpaper standards. Poetry should not be strict. It should not be confining. The language and the form should serve the message; the message should not be beaten and broken to fit the form. Poetry should not be created for form and language's sake. It becomes pointless.
First, a word on form. Forms can provide structure to poetry, as well as an artistic element that can help to reinforce the message. Poets should practice with forms, but forms should not become the be-all of their poetry. The poet should keep in mind Ezra Pound's quote "keep it new." For example, sonnets have been around for hundreds of years. When you sit down to write a sonnet, think for a moment: what the hell can you say that's new? If you can't think of anything new, thought-provoking, interesting, or anything that would have a point beyond its mere existence as a sonnet, put your pencil down, go outside, and sit and watch people or traffic or something until you have a better idea. But don't necessarily abandon forms completely; they do have purpose. Take Shakespeare's "Sonnet 20" for an example:
A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all 'hues' in his controlling,
Much steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy loves use their treasure.
In this sonnet, Shakespeare uses the sonnet form, one of the most traditional formats for the love poem, to develop a sentiment that is truly interesting, and actually radical when viewed through the modern lens. This poem is not written to a woman, but to a man. Shakespeare is lamenting that this perfect man would rather pleasure women than share in pleasure with him. The form serves to establish an irony to the point of the poem. If it were merely another love sonnet, it would not be half as remarkable as it is. Take this as your example; do not be beholden to the tyranny of form Shakespeare himself heavily revised traditional sonnet form because the message is important, not the medium.
In the same vein, many people who forsake form lose their meaning in a deluge of words. They produce poetry that, while interesting and pleasing to listen to, has no other redeeming quality. This poetry is just as bankrupt as a poem that has been beaten and bruised until it is a sonnet. Poetry should not exist for the sake of the language no more than it should exist for the sake of the form. Poetry is the message, the meaning behind, within, and around the language. Look at Wallace Stevens' "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock:"
The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
In red weather.
In this poem, Stevens seems to be using his language to talk about nothing. The language is beautiful, and even impressive in passages, but the language is not the only point of the poem. Looking beneath the language, one sees that there is an entire intellectual life in this poem, asking us to consider the conservative nature of society and what really develops into the strange and unique. Poetry can be difficult to interpret at times, but interpretation should always be possible. Even abstract art has a point. Poetry with no point is a waste.
Finally, one of the largest misconceptions in poetry comes in the creation of meaning. When you write a poem, you fill the lines with beauty, with passion, and with the truth of your life and your observations on the world. But when you publish a poem, unleash it on the public, it can take on a life of its own. Readers will find meanings you never intended, miss what you did intend, and take issue with what you might incredibly hold dear. Nobody would probably read your love poem to Adolph Hitler as anything other that White Power propaganda, even if the intended meaning was a longing for pure villains in the world that gave noble men purpose. This creation of meaning is tricky, but is also the soul of literature. The author makes something, and the reader makes it their own. Take for example, my own poem "Made In China:"
A chance glance befalls
My eye upon a label
Bearing that ubiquitous slogan:
Made in China.
Everything under the sun,
Jackets, hats, computers,
There is nothing new under the sun
Not Made in China.
Grandiose envoys of economic bounty
Carry steel and daffodils
But bring to our shores trinkets galore,
All Made in China.
Electronic eyes spy electronic words
Electronically produced on an electric screen
Electronically carried on electric lines,
And Reproduced in China.
My work seen on a Chinese screen,
Chinese mind behind Chinese eyes,
Reads to himself, synthesizes my words
To become Made in China.
Yet his eyes see the same things:
Pirated DVDs in cardboard bins
His pop-culture, like mine forged
In fires fueled by Made in China.
Can a poem seen by Chinese eyes,
But not written by Chinese guys,
Truly sport that popular label, and be
Made in China?
The intended meaning of the poem is to have the reader question the cultural element in this author-reader interaction process, but I've seen people read it as an indictment of globalization, a commentary on the process of cultural formation, and many other interpretations. All of these and more are valid. It's not my place to ridicule readers when they derive something other than my intended meaning. Such ridicule breaks down the Great Conversation and stifles true expression and innovation in poetry. Remember, as soon as you publish, your work is no longer your own, but a synthesis of the reader-writer experience. So listen to your readers. Ask them, honestly, what they see. You might be a lot more insightful or a lot more insipid than you thought.
We are at a unique point in history. The major artistic movement facing us, indeed that we are participating in, is the democratization of art and the means of production of art. We can all become artists; we can all partake in the Great Conversation. This is the beauty of the internet age. So take this manifesto not as the gospel truth, but as one way of reading, as one height to aspire to. Don't like it? Participate in the Great Conversation and write your own. Heck, even if you do like it, write your own. Take this message to heart and put some heart into your work. Aspire for something greater. Take the examples of some of the great poets I've given you. Judge my meager work against theirs. Judge my work by my philosophy. Judge it by your philosophy. It only matters that we aspire to better than chintzy middle school poems about roses and violets and reach in our writing for poetry that actually matters.