Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Good Poetry / Bad Poetry

I go into each new book of poetry wanting very much to hear what the author has to say, and wanting to enjoy how they say it. Because of this conscious open-mindedness, I am extremely disappointed if the poetry doesn't "work" for me. I have to admit I'm a bit low-brow in my tastes, by which I mean I prefer poetry I can understand. I don't mind working for it, so long as the author is genuine, but snobbery for snobbery's sake just pisses me off as a reader. Be warned!

The impetus for this particular post comes as I read the review in the November 2007 issue of Library Journal panning Sandra McPherson's Expectation Days. (No snickers about how behind I am in my mag reading from the peanut gallery, please.) Having just read The Spaces Between Birds for my last MFA packet, I have to land on the side of the reviewer. While she has the occasional combination of lines that make me sit up and say, "Wow! I hadn't thought of putting those things together into that image - fantastic!", more often she strikes me as somewhat cold and impersonal, even about the most personal of issues like motherhood and death. Some of this has to do with her odd use of too-strange words that interrupt the flow of a poem, some of it with her unoriginal use of nature imagery. She's not a bad poet, by any means - her images are disjointed in such a way that every reading gives you something new to work with...I just prefer a little more feel to come though, if you understand my meaning. (Other people have other opinions, obviously, since she's published more than one book.) But McPherson doesn't leave me breathless, and I don't find that certain lines or phrases of hers haunt me in my sleep, or at odd waking hours. This is how I judge how much I enjoy poetry: does it come a-haunting me when my mind strays? Do certain liens take up residence and simply stay, squatters in my mindspace?

Everyone has their own tastes, but it leaves me wondering this: what is that spark that captures a reader? And should we worry about whether or not we have it, since there are so many tastes out there, that we're bound to fit someone's idea of good work? Not that we shouldn't constantly be trying to develop and improve, since we should. But should we worry about whether or not we have the spark, or do we let the editors decide? (Remember, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected by 121 publishers before it was finally put into print...) All thoughts welcome.


Cristina Trapani-Scott said...

Hi Colleen,

I tried this earlier, but it didn't seem to work. Here it goes again. I think what creates a spark is difficult to define. Everyone's taste is so individual. I guess a collective sparks comes from a poet hitting on the right combination of unique and universality. That's probably what does it for me. I'm always captivated by the way a poet can find a unique way to express some universal truth. Humor also gets me good. Have you read any Denise Duhamel? I definitely get a spark with her some of her work. My favorite of her poems is The Difference Between Pepsi and Pope. She even mentions Molly Peacock in the poem. I wonder if Molly is aware? She probably is.

I think you have a very thought provoking blog.

Colleen said...

I've heard of Duhamel, but I haven't read her yet. (I'm going to remedy this ASAP. Ah, the wonders of interlibrary Loan! Saves em a bundle of cash.)

Thanks for the compliment (and for reading!) on my blog! I think you are right, you have to hit some universal truth (and there are enough that a writer should be able to choose one), but you need to find an interesting and unique way to say it so people pay attention, and to make it your own. My current workshop leader here in Chattanooga, Earl Braggs, says that "There is nothing that hasn't been written about before." So the pressure to find something 'new' is off. Now we just need to find a new way of expressing it. Something to think about as we write.

Helen Rickerby said...

Hi Colleen

I'm really enjoying your blog - it's really interesting to hear your thoughts as you're studying other poets and working on your own poetry.

About good and bad poetry: I find poetry a really strange form in many ways. I feel like it's both the highest and lowest art form - a really bad poem is truly awful, and a really good poem is a perfect epiphany. But people's opinions about which ones are good and which ones are bad can be so divergent.

As a poet and poetry reader, I'm really committed to poetry, but even so I think I probably dislike or don't connect with at least half of all the poetry I read. Which isn't to say that the rest is bad, but I guess with a poem we're not just looking for something we think is technically good or interesting, but something that touches us and resonates with us.

It's a big thing to ask really!