Back when I thought I might be a poet, I wrote this as an introduction to a collection that I might publish someday. These days, I’m confident in my prose, but not so much in my poems, so I don’t know that any of those works will ever appear in print, other than on this blog. I offer the introduction here because it tells you how I feel about poetry–why I read it and still try to write it. Your thoughts are welcome.
Introduction: On the Club Tour and other Figures of Speech
To most everyone but poets and academics, poetry is effectively dead. It’s part of our past, something that should be on display in the Smithsonian. And like many such displays, it is easily overlooked, a hulking shape that fades into the scenery of the great Museum of our lives. Most people look at poetry and nod, stifle a yawn, and move onto the next exhibit. Occasionally they might spot an item of interest, one that beckons them to pause and consider. But for the most part, they seem ready to get the tour over with so they can get home in time to catch the Yankees and Red Sox on ESPN.
This elaborate conceit is not my metaphor of choice, though. I liken poetry to 1980s hair-metal bands. The genre ain’t dead; it’s just not playing arena shows anymore. Now you’re more likely to find it jamming on stage in the seedier part of town, where the smoke is thick and the pool tables have so many blood stains that they look like relief maps and the beer is stronger than the odor of the bouncers. Poetry looks older now, its hair streaked with gray, its eyes crow-footed and seemingly always on the verge of tears. The audience consists of die-hard fans with beer guts and twenty-year-old concert shirts; of the odd suit from the label, the one dispatched to measure how many tickets are sold and, therefore, whether there might be enough interest for a greatest hits package; of ambivalent drunks who hope to score with the slutty chicks with the big hair and fake boobs. In a lot of ways, the scene is pathetic.
But put poetry in front of the right crowd and the old magic can reappear. Sometimes the singer drags that old barbaric yawp from way down in the diaphragm. At times like these, the lines and stanzas sometimes seem to come fully formed, without conscious thought or action. It’s the moment when emotion and human experience condense into a few well-turned phrases, when the raw truth of being erupts from the singer and into a deep place in the audience, so that all they can do is bang their heads, raise their hands in unison, and shout
Moments like these are what poets live for, when just one reader finds that, for the space of a line or a phrase or a word, everything is exactly right. And one great, tragic truth of writing is that you seldom know whether or not such moments occur.
Of course, for many readers (and for far too many alleged writers), poetry is nothing so transcendent. To them, poetry is cute. It’s the roses-are-red love poem or its bawdy parody that we all memorized in sixth grade. It’s the patriotic screed set to rhyme, inspirational didacticism in ABAB. These so-called poems have no rhythm, no meter, no reason to rhyme except that that’s what so many people think poetry is supposed to do. It’s enough to make you cry, and you would, except that somebody might write a bad poem about it.
Others seem to have some idea of what poetry can and should be, yet they seem intent on ruining their own work by throwing in some all-knowing, here’s-the-point-I’m-getting-at statement. These lines hit the reader about the head and shoulders like a brickbat. Forget image and repetition and symbol; what we apparently need from these writers is meaning, and only one meaning at that. No room for growth, for interpretation, for experiences other than one’s own—even the reader-response critics could do little with these.
I try to avoid these pitfalls when I’m on stage. I hope I got some things right. I don’t know if my work is another sad club date in a genre whose time is passing or a gig that proves the old band can still crank it up pretty well. I hope for the latter. All I know is that I’m still ready to pull up my stool and jam.
This club’s got no drink minimum and a pretty small cover charge. Imbibe with me and let’s see how long the party can last.