Excerpt from ‘Poetry’ from Others (1919) by Marianne Moore
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise…
…if you demand on one hand, in defiance of their
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness, and
that which is on the other hand,
genuine, then you are interested in poetry.
Ben Lerner writes in his 2016 examination of the craft, The Hatred of Poetry: “When somebody tells me, as so many people have told me, that they don’t get poetry in general or my poetry in particular and/or believe that poetry is dead [I tell them]: I, too, dislike it.” Reading this reminds me of what Ella Risbridger wrote in her 2019 anthology, Set Me On Fire: A Poem For Every Feeling, saying in a very matter-of-fact way: “Most people, you know, hate poetry. This is a terrible thing to admit, if you’re a person who loves poetry.”
And it is. It is a terrible thing for me to admit, because I love poetry. I mean, I love books and reading of all kinds, yes, but I devour poetry.
I had this idea to do an exposé on why people hate poetry and why I love it. But when I sat down to write this sharp, witty, and very controversial exposé, I didn’t know where to start. Google search: Why do people hate poetry? It’s the poets’ fault. Why do I love it? What drew me in? I couldn’t even remember.
What I do know, however, is that I am a voracious poetry consumer.
I love poetry. My earliest memories stretch back to the first time I saw Sarah Kay’s 2011 TED talk in which she performs her poem ‘B.’ She opens: “(If I should have a daughter…) Instead of Mum, she’s going to call me Point B. / Because that way she knows that no matter what happens, / At least she can always find her way to me.”
I was in love with this future love. I didn’t know you could be nostalgic for the future! Now, I see that inexpressible love ride in tandem with Matthew Olzmann’s ‘Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem’: “So here’s what I’ve got, the reasons why our marriage / might work: because you wear pink but write poems / about bullets and gravestones.” Poets have so much love to give, even if they write poems about bullets and gravestones.
So yeah, I guess you could say poetry is about love. But poetry also isn’t about love. Sylvia Plath writes about, amongst other things, her desire to die. She writes about tulips in wintertime, about “learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly.”
Mary Oliver, admittedly, does write about love – she wrote a whole collection of poems about her love for her dog – but she writes mostly about hope. In her poem, ‘Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness’ from her 2012 collection, A Thousand Mornings, she says: “So let us go on, cheerfully enough / this and every crisping day, / though the sun be swinging east… and the sweets of the year be doomed.”
Savannah Brown writes about the apocalypse. She writes in her poem, ‘The Universe May Stop Expanding in Five Billion Years’: “at which point time will cease / to exist and i can finally stop / complaining.” I sigh in relief and in exasperation when I read this, me too.
Even Savannah Brown, who gained her following online, follows in the footsteps of Lord Byron in his 1816 poem ‘Darkness,’ in which he predicts the apocalypse: “I had a dream, which was not all a dream. / The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars / Did wander darkling into the eternal space.”
Risbridger writes: “A poem, you see, is a kind of collaboration. It is partly what the writer wrote and partly what the reader reads. You bring your own life with you when you read. How I read a poem might not be how you read a poem, and how I read a poem now might not be how I read it next year. Poems change: the same words on the same page can be different because you are different.”
I don’t think it is this eternal unchangeability of the poem that scares people; I think it is the history of poetry that scares people. Like, yes, I know what a sonnet is (do I, though?). I’m pretty sure I could define a haiku for you. I’ve definitely dabbled in the acrostic. But a limerick? An Ode? An elegy? I laugh. I’ve got absolutely no idea. The thing is, though, I’m not sure the ‘experts’ could explain it to you in a single sentence either.
The history of poetry is uneven and paradoxical and political. It spans continents and goes back to the times before we even started writing stories down. But what is interesting is that the stuff we think is ‘stuffy’ – I’m thinking about, say, the Romantics (approx. 1780s-1820s) and anyone else before the 1980s – is that compared to what came before them, they weren’t ‘stuffy’ at all.
What we class as Romantic poetry was rebelling against an incredibly strict period in the 17th and 18th centuries where what you wanted to write a poem about, dictated the form you would write it in. The Romantics were essentially the Insta-poets of the 19th century.
I think most people simply misunderstand the fundamental emotional basis of poetry. Ben Lerner writes that we feel an anger towards the self when we don’t understand a poem. We are taught that poetry exclusively uses language no longer in the modern layman’s vocabulary. “Why don’t I understand this?” we ask of ourselves. “Probably because it’s a bit shite,” I would answer. “Or, maybe you should expand your vocabulary.”
I see poems like friends; you have to get to know the ones you don’t like in order to know which ones that you do.
William Sieghart writes in the introduction to his 2017 anthology, The Poetry Pharmacy, “You don’t need to be a poet to find solace in poetry.” Sometimes, even if you are a poet, like the brilliant Danez Smith, you just need to write a poem called ‘trees!’ – yes, it is about trees, but it is also about death, and red-hot violent anger. Poems are often about one thing, but also really about another. Emily Berry’s poem, ‘Winter,’ is about an escape-route, but also about a mother who is so sad that “she could not hold up her head.” These things are not mutually exclusive. Poems are often poems-in-disguise. However, they can also be as limited or as exponential in meaning as you want them to be.
In one of her footnotes in Set Me On Fire, Risbridger importantly writes: “A poem that doesn’t work for you is not a poem that you need. It’s not your failing. It’s not you at all; it’s them. It’s fine. Scrap it. Ignore it. Turn the page.” This is what I cannot seem to point out or emphasise enough. Please, I plead. It’s not you; it’s them. Please continue reading.
Look, we may never know what Billy Collins means when he writes about taking off Emily Dickinson’s clothes (yes, this is a poem; no, I couldn’t tell you what it’s about, except that it’s probably about sex, but then again, a lot of poems are; yes, you may want to look it up).
Maybe this intended exposé evolved into an amalgamation of my favourite poems. To be real with you – as the kids say – I don’t mind that at all. And, to be more real with you, I will admit it; I kinda hate poetry, too. I see why you don’t like poetry. I don’t like most of the poetry that I see and read. But the poems that I do like light a spark within me. Good poems help me understand the world, and help the world understand me.
I desire rawness and that which is genuine; this is why I am interested in poetry.
If you like poetry already, or are new to poetry and want to dive deeper, I suggest:
A Thousand Mornings (2012) by Mary Oliver
Date & Time (2018) by Phil Kaye
Mezzanines (2013) by Matthew Olzmann
No Matter the Wreckage (2014) by Sarah Kay
Set Me On Fire: A Poem For Every Feeling (2019) by Ella Risbridger