Poetry May Not Be What You Think It Is

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I’m not sure we take the right approach in how we teach kids poetry. From a young age we’re exposed to poems via nursery rhymes and what we’re taught is that poetry is rhyming couplets. Dr Suess tells us, then later pop music – the only real exposure we get to what poetry is rhyme, repeated patterns and verse. And that’s fine, in no way would I ever disparage the skill it takes to create great rhyming poetry, but it’s also a very narrow view of what poetry is and can be. The problem is, we’re given such limited exposure to other forms of poetry. What’s more, while there are many brilliant examples of rhyming poetry, it is a true skill to master, and there are even more examples of bad rhyming couplets – and let’s face it, even amidst the greatest rhyming poems there’s normally a couple of laboured lines and references that have been jammed in, in order to stay in theme.

My issue with this is that we might be restricting people’s view of what poetry is by teaching them only one narrow view of the form. When people hear poetry, they think ‘Roses are red…’, that sort of light, generic, often tacky, form of expression. They think of jokes, of rhythmic language that’s used in movie clichés. They think of kids books, that poetry is something for kids, when really, the means of expression via poetic form are so wide, so unrestricted, and rhyming verse is only one small part of the equation. Poetry is the closest thing to connecting thoughts through language. It’s translating emotion, creating connections in the readers’ brains that connect on a higher level than the language alone. Poetry can be transformative and transcendent and more than most people might think it to be.

I know how many people view poetry. I know, because I once viewed it that way too – I’m a story writer, and have always been focussed on story. Poetry was like a joke to me – you put a few words together that may or may not mean something and if you can find the right balance between being vague enough that people can find their own meaning, and so vague that the words don’t even connect, then you’ve got yourself a poem. I even tested this in high school – we were doing poetry in English and one of my classmates asked how you do it. I wrote a poem about crying in the rain, with deliberately vague lines like: ‘My optimistic pessimism’. It got published in the school paper, then it got published in a state-wide street press publication:

Beat 1998

This reinforced my view, poetry was easy and not to be taken seriously.

My view changed on this after reading Fight Club. This wasn’t because the language of Fight Club was so poetic, but from Fight Club I researched all I could about the author, Chuck Palahniuk. Palahniuk listed one of his favourite authors as Amy Hempel, so I went on to read all her stuff. Hempel is phenomenal – if you haven’t read any of Amy Hempel’s work, you’re missing out, and you need to get over to Amazon now and order a couple of her books. Her short story collection ‘Reasons to Live’ changed the way I think about writing – Hempel’s style is something that can’t be replicated, so intricate and subtle that, as Palahniuk says: ‘all you can do is lie on the floor, face down, and praise it.’

Fran Lebowitz still writes about the moment she first looked at a clock and grasped the concept of telling time. Hempel’s work is nothing but these flashes, and every flash makes you ache with recognition. –Chuck Palahniuk on Amy Hempel

Hempel is both a short fiction writer and a poet, with several volumes of both in circulation. The combination of the two is what makes her so brilliant – Hempel can extract the emotion from the most mundane moment and translate it into a thing of beauty. This is not ‘Hempel the Writer’, at work, it’s ‘Hempel the Poet’, but the two have become so intertwined that her prose transcends the parameters of either form. For example, here is one of my favourite Amy Hempel stories – the first story of hers I read, and the one that made me want to buy everything she’d ever written:

My heart — I thought it stopped. So I got in my car and headed for God. I passed two churches with cars parked in front. Then I stopped at the third because no one else had. It was early afternoon, the middle of the week. I chose a pew in the center of the rows. Episcopal or Methodist, it didn’t make any difference. It was as quiet as a church. I thought about the feeling of the long missed beat, and the tumble of the next ones as they rushed to fill the space. I sat there — in the high brace of quiet and stained glass — and I listened.

At the back of my house I can stand in the light from the sliding glass door and look out onto the deck. The deck is planted with marguerites and succulents in red clay pots. One of the pots is empty. It is shallow and broad, and filled with water like a birdbath.

My cat takes naps in the windowbox. Her gray chin is powdered with the iridescent dust from butterfly wings. If I tap on the glass, the cat will not look up. The sound that I make is not food.

When I was a girl I sneaked out at night. I pressed myself to hedges and fitted the shadows of trees. I went to a construction site near the lake. I took a concrete-mixing tub, slid it to the shore, and sat down inside it like a saucer. I would push off from the sand with one stolen oar and float, hearing nothing, for hours.

The birdbath is shaped like that tub.

I look at my nails in the harsh bathroom light. The scare will appear as a ripple at the base. It will take a couple of weeks to see.

I lock the door and run a tub of water.

Most of the time you don’t really hear it. A pulse is a thing that you feel. Even if you are somewhat quiet. Sometimes you hear it through the pillow at night. But I know that there is a place where you can hear it even better than that. Here is what you do. You ease yourself into a tub of water, you ease yourself down. You lie back and wait for the ripples to smooth away. Then you take a deep breath, and slide your head under, and listen for the playfulness of your heart.

It’s a perfect example of Hempel’s work – simple but complex, mundane but poetic. It isn’t straight-forward storytelling, but there is such a resonant story there, even this very short piece. It’s a connective work, the way Hempel has used language to build layer upon layer. It’s more than just prose writing, it’s another level of literary expression. And I wanted to read more.

Hempel’s work lead me onto Sharon Olds, who’s an amazing poet, one of the best I’ve ever read. Like Hempel, Olds’ work transcends the confines of what you may think poetry can be. While Olds doesn’t have the prose leanings of Hempel, her poems tell a story nonetheless, and she’s often able to tell a more powerful story than many can in novel-form. One of my favourite Olds poems is this:

Summer Solstice, New York City

By the end of the longest day of the year he could not stand it,

he went up the iron stairs through the roof of the building

and over the soft, tarry surface

to the edge, put one leg over the complex green tin cornice

and said if they came a step closer that was it.

Then the huge machinery of the earth began to work for his life,

the cops came in their suits blue-grey as the sky on a cloudy evening,

and one put on a bullet-proof vest, a

black shell around his own life,

life of his children’s father, in case

the man was armed, and one, slung with a

rope like the sign of his bounden duty,

came up out of a hole in the top of the neighboring building

like the gold hole they say is in the top of the head,

and began to lurk toward the man who wanted to die.

The tallest cop approached him directly,

softly, slowly, talking to him, talking, talking,

while the man’s leg hung over the lip of the next world

and the crowd gathered in the street, silent, and the

hairy net with its implacable grid was

unfolded near the curb and spread out and

stretched as the sheet is prepared to receive at a birth.

Then they all came a little closer

where he squatted nest to his death, his shirt

glowing its milky glow like something

growing in a dish at night in the dark in a lab and then

everything stopped

as his body jerked and he

stepped down from the parapet and went toward them

and they closed on him, I thought they were going to

beat him up, as a mother whose child has been

lost will scream at the child when it’s found, they

took him by the arms and held him up and

leaned him against the wall of the chimney and the

tall cop lit a cigarette

in his own mouth, and gave it to him, and

then they all lit cigarettes, and the

red, glowing ends burned like the

tiny campfires we lit at night

back at the beginning of the world.

This is a story, right? This is more prose-like than you’d expect a poem to be, but it’s also definitely a poem. The words carry such weight, each line is crafted and precise. Olds’ poetry taught me the importance of ‘language economics’, of the need to be concise and ensure each sentence reaches it’s full potential – there’s so much more to this poem that the words on the page. Great poetry uses the experiences and associations of the reader to build the greater context, rather than explaining it to them – which is true also of great prose writing – but nothing illustrates this point better than a great poem. One line can change everything, can hit you so hard. Poetry taught me the importance of rhythm and timing, and word placement in general. These are the tools you need to be able to communicate well. Poetry showcases those skills better than any other form.

Knowledge of poetry better informs you as a writer and helps you find better ways to communicate your story. Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ is one of the best examples of poetic description in prose form, and it’s so much more resonant because of it. A sequence like this:

By then it was already evening. Just the slow periodic rack and shuffle of the oarlocks. The lake dark glass and windowlights coming on along the shore. A radio somewhere. Neither of them had spoken a word. This was the perfect day of his childhood. This the day to shape the days upon – Cormac McCarthy, The Road

This is poetry, this is connecting emotion via language – sentence construction aligned with thought. It’s more than just the sum of its parts, than just the words alone, there’s a beauty to it’s simplicity. If I’d presented this as a poem, you’d not have thought twice about it. But it’s used in prose, in a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, no less. This is the potential of poetic expression. It’s far more than just rhyme.

With a newfound respect for poetry, I started to investigate and appreciate other forms of the medium. And while it’s often lambasted as the height of pretentiousness, spoken word poetry, when done well, can be extremely powerful. The thing that many miss is that the performance is a major part – it’s ‘performance poetry’ not a poetry reading. At the Melbourne Writers’ Festival a few years back, I remember Canadian performance poet Shane Koyczan had done a session. Koyczan had his mostly female audience swooning, all because of his delivery of lines like:

looking at you it occurred to me
I could sit around all day
wearing nothing but your kiss

– Shane Koyczan, Skin 2

And one of my favourite performances was by ‘Coded Language’ by Saul Williams.

It’s passionate, resonant and again, it’s more than the sum of it’s parts, more than the words alone.

So this is why I don’t think we take the right approach to how we teach poetry, because I would have never thought to look at these things, I’d have never come across the greater opportunities of creative expression through poetry without finding it in my own way. I realise one of the main challenges of education is engagement, finding ways to get kids interested in what’s being taught, and no doubt that’s a barrier, but I feel like we need to reinforce that real poetry is so much more than rhyming couplets. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe educators are doing all they can, but there’s so much opportunity for expression through poetry, so much more than what people might interpret ‘poetry’ to be. While it’ll never be mainstream, by highlighting all these other avenues, maybe we can encourage more participation in poetic expression, and get in touch with more amazing writing as a result. At the least, knowledge of poetic expression will improve your written communication, in all forms.

 

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