The Emperor’s new poetry book

Of all the things I try to review, poetry is the most problematic. For context, let me mention that I have a degree in English Literature. I’ve studied literary criticism, I’ve written degree level essays on poetry from the last couple of centuries. I’ve read a lot of poetry, historical and more modern. Compared to an academic working in the field of poetry, I’m a lightweight. Compared to the average reader, I’ve read and studied a lot of poetry. And yet, when I look at how other reviewers respond to some books, I can often be stumped.

I’ve just fallen out of a collection. I don’t think I can face reading it to the end. It felt like hitting and sliding down glass walls, with occasionally a sense of meaning implied, but always unavailable to me. Individual lines seemed well wrought, charming even, but added together to make… nothing I can figure out how to respond to. My only emotional response has been frustration.

And yet, other reviewers have heaped praise on it. “A gorgeous, brilliant book,” says one. “Complex sensuousness and deep intelligence.” “Unintrusive precision” – what does that mean, even? “Her almost painterly imagery implodes gracefully.” Ah, so that was what I was missing.

When other critics respond in this way, it’s hard not to feel that as the reader, I must be the problem. I’m too ignorant, no doubt. I couldn’t spot the graceful implosion of a poem if it splattered itself all over my face, I expect.

As an ordinary reader of poems, I’m basically looking for something I can connect with – images, moods, ideas… Some point of meaningful engagement between me and the text. I want something to happen, other than me feeling confused and dense. I can handle ee cummings and Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and the metaphysical poets. I can cope with complexity, I think. I can cope with metaphor and surprising juxtapositions. In the realms of story and non-fiction, I feel confident saying when something doesn’t add up. The nature of such writing makes it easy to point at problems. We have some collective ideas about what stories and essays are. But what is a poem? What does a poem do? At what point can we safely say ‘this poem is not doing the things’?

A continuity error in a story is easily flagged up. A failure to resolve a plot in a satisfying way is easy to talk about. An argument that isn’t logical, or well founded can be taken apart. ‘I do not get this poem’ can be answered with ‘you didn’t read well enough’. I’m wary about picking holes in poems for this reason. Am I an insufficiently sensitive reader? Am I too old fashioned, too low-brow, insufficiently read and educated. I look at my qualifications, and my reading experience.

Back when I was writing Fast Food at the Centre of the World, I had a poet character. He’s a charlatan. Let me write you the kind of thing John Silver would write…

“In the withheld breathe, a moment of iniquity,

Longing becomes a windmill, exacerbated

By time, for the wind is change and I am the eye

Of a storm that caresses immortality.”

I can do this all day. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s designed to sound like poetry and that is the sum and total of what it is for. Sometimes, in matters of poetry, I am deeply suspicious that the Emperor has no clothes on.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

5 responses to “The Emperor’s new poetry book

  • alainafae

    To my understanding, the purpose a poem is to evoke a certain type of experience. It is up to the reader / listener to determine what value that experience has to them. Carl Jung wrote a small but significant bit about creavity, and he basically divided it into two categories. The first category he called ‘psychological’ creativity; the artist has an intention to create something specific, develops a plan, and more or less executes said plan. Although this type of creativity can be aesthetically pleasing and can inspire deep experiences for some individuals, on the whole it results in either an attempt to manifest the vision of another (commission work, for example) or with the end result being a personal confession from the soul of the artist. Both results are valuable in their own way, but it tends not to have or reach the soul-catching quality of what Jung called ‘visionary’ creativity. In this second form, the artist usually likens the creative experience as happening to them or being given to them, almost like a possession, rather than something they themselves did (one of my favorite examples of this was Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on Your Elusive Creative Genius). There is a basic intention / need to create, and then the work flows through that as it will. While the final outcome may not appear, by general standards, to be ‘beautiful’, it has a something to it that resonates powerfully with the undercurrents of human experience. Visionary art keeps us coming back, keeps us pondering, provokes our very souls. Of course it’s not as simple as an either-or designation of an artwork as being psychological vs. visionary creativity and rather more like a spectrum, but I think most people can intuitively feel the difference in the experience of it. And so, to summarize my point (finally, haha), I think perhaps what you were describing was poetry that felt too much in the realm of psychological creativity, where the writer(s) tried too hard to control and contort words into a certain kind of experience and were not all that successful.

  • Crow Girl

    Seriously, don’t feel bad; I’m a poet and I can’t stand most contemporary poetry. Far too much of it is content-free academic word games, written by MFA grads (or their professors) to impress the tastemakers rather than communicate with everyday readers, and void of concrete, sensual (as in the physical senses) imagery. I don’t know what to blame: the postmodernism fad of divorcing art from meaning, the flattening effect of academic MFA programs, the lack of publishing outlets leading to the dictatorship of a few editors’ tastes, all of these, or something else. However it happened, there’s a lack of soul that makes most poetry a chore, or even an ordeal, rather than a joy to read.

    The best poetry I’ve seen recently has been either written by immigrants, translated from other languages, published no later than the mid-20th century, or found in that red-headed stepchild of a subgenre, speculative poetry (the small pond I prefer to splash around in). Mainstream poetry seems already to have driven itself to the far reaches of irrelevance. I’m waiting and hoping for a new breed of feral poets to reinvent and revive the genre, before it dies as public art.

  • Poetry and poetical things | Druid Life

    […] my recent rant about bad poetry, here are three poetic titles I’ve read in the last week or so that I can heartily recommend. All […]

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