Every week I go to an appointment where they put out The New Yorker in the waiting area, among other magazines like O and The Atlantic, and every week I pick up the latest New Yorker and glance through it. Of course I read the cartoons! – but I also look for the poetry. I admit some of it is not to my taste, but that’s what poetry is about; it’s not all to one’s taste. A lot of it is not. But that’s part of what poetry is. It is a very personal experience, it is reading lines or words or phrases that either pull you into a different landscape or atmosphere, or they do not.
For a long time earlier in my life I thought something was wrong with me, that I wasn’t getting poetry correctly. If I encountered a poem I didn’t understand, I thought I wasn’t smart enough to puzzle it out. However, a few years back, during my MFA program in a master class on poetry, we had a session that changed my life. The professor asked us to read five poems she assigned in advance, and to bring in a list of those poems in order of favorite to least favorite. When we came into the classroom we brought our lists, and the professor made a big chart on the white board, with the names of the poems running down the left side, and our names across the top. In each column under our name she put the order of preference for each poem according to the list we brought in.
Guess what? Do you think that there was a consensus on which poems were “the best,” and which were “the worst”? In other words, did our lists look similar when we put them on the white board?
As you’ve probably guessed, they did not. In fact, there was a wide variation among which poems were “the favorite,” and which were “the least favorite.” In fact, it was almost an even distribution among all the poems, of most- to least-favorite status. Poems that one person hated were the favorite of another. I was shocked. And I was relieved.
My takeaway was this: it’s completely okay to like a poem just because you like it. It’s also completely okay NOT to like a poem if you do not. This was a huge demonstration that understanding or preference for a particular poem is not a reflection of one’s intelligence or how smart one is. It is just that – understanding or preference of a poem because of what the poem is to YOU, and what it evokes or suggests or reminds you of when you read it.
This is not to say we shouldn’t try to understand poems that are hard at first try. I’m not suggesting all poems should be “easy.” What I want to express is, like art, it’s perfectly okay to enjoy a poem you like, and it’s okay to pass on poems that don’t appeal to you. What I look for in a poem, even if I don’t enjoy it very much, is a sequence of words, or a phrase, that I have never seen before, or that strikes me as unusual, or that makes me think of something else creative.
I really liked a poem from a recent New Yorker, Brenda Shaughnessey’s “Gift Planet.” I like the start of it:
My six-year-old said, “I don’t know time.” She already knows it’s unknowable. Let it be always a stranger she walks wide around.
Gosh, can you imagine that? Time is “unknowable.” Let time be a stranger that her daughter gives a wide berth to, something not allowed to dominate, to dictate, to determine the course of your life. Fun!
Why do I love poets? Last week at my writing conference I had the chance to hear recent work from two poet-colleagues and friends who are poets. And once again I felt drawn to, and transported, by the loveliness of their work. Not that their poems were all about flowers or gardens or the sunrise, not at all. But their language, their phrasing, their word choices really spoke to me, and when I heard them read their work I felt uplifted. I know that’s an overused word. I felt touched and connected and better than before I heard their work.
As you know, I like to start my daily routine writing exercise with a line from a Poem of the Day, and I have a very short piece I wrote using the first lines of a Robert Frost poem, “Fragmentary Blue” (what a great title, huh?). The opening of Frost’s poem goes,
Why make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,
I wrote this piece, “Blink,” in recollection of my recent visit to Phoenix, Arizona, and on the heels of a lovely visit with poet-colleague and blogger-friend Luanne Castle.
Her eyes a fragmentary blue. She blinked, blinked, blinked again and the hills turned to valleys, the valleys to rivers, the rivers to lake beds. She blinked, blinked, blinked again and the stars fell to earth, the hills behind the mountains became the beyond. She blinked, blinked, blinked again and you could see eternity in the bowl of the desert, blue band along the rim of mountains, pink above, just as the sun rises over the turning earth, to the east, east, east, and every hopeful, ever the optimist, ever the punching declaiming sun to rule and to rune the desert earth. Petroglyphs sing the messages of the old ones. Here, here, here, the eyes blink and the earth sinks and the sun is evermore.
Take care and good writing,