Recently, the Arts Council of Greater Lansing put up a billboard celebrating a local poet. I first saw this sign while driving on a highway this weekend, and afterwards I spent 20 minutes trying to understand what I read and then wondering how that one little sentence exactly was poetry. How safe that was for me or the other drivers is debatable (Considering my driving skills it is always debatable when I am on the roads).
The sign read only this: “Blood beats history as presence.”
Imagine seeing that in big white letters with a black background while driving and you will understand my car’s slight swervings. (I get what the poet is saying, but the imagery being used feels very aggressive to me; “blood” and “beatings,” etc.).
I’ve never really understood modern poetry and the sad thing is I have tried. But like the Freemasons, they have their own secret rules and initiations into deciding who can and cannot be in the club. I was never honored with the customary black turtleneck and ink quill as it were; but, honestly, I never sought it out.
I like classic poetry. I can be moved by a Shakespeare sonnet. I am a fan of the Romantic poets (and have quoted Keats often in my work), but the freedom from the classic rules you find in modern or contemporary poetry is what disarms me. Some I really like (Henry Williams’ work jumps to mind.) Yet, poetry, like modern painting, seems to now exist somewhere down in the stomach as a gut/emotional reaction as compared to something that can be easily analyzed on the page. And if you don’t get it, well, you don’t get it.
Yet, while I can accept that I do not understand most poetry today, I have a deeper reaction to modern poetry than simple confusion… Fear.
In the 1990’s, I was still hoping to understand poetry. Heck, I would even argue that my reading of poetry in classes has made me a better writer, making my literary voice more experimental and lyrical when I needed to pull on the charm in a story. I was studying at Michigan State University at that time and an opportunity came up I could not turn down. If I wanted to “get” contemporary poetry this was it- A graduate level course in poetry writing taught by Diane Wakoski.
What a great opportunity; not only would I understand the artform more but maybe, just maybe, I would be able to impress this established poet with some of my own words.
Oh, now naive I was…
How naive? Well, for the remainder of this essay I will refer to her by the nickname we gave her in the class, “Darth Poet.”
How I remember the warm glow and happy hopes of me and the other students that day! You could feel the anticipation of the first class even from the students in black who hated to show their emotions. And each of us came with bundles of poetry in our arms and ripped back packs. The thrill, the excitement, that all changed with Darth Poet arrived. She did not have a fog machine and evil theme song, she was more like Emperor Palpatine (Yes, I am going to run with the Star Wars references from here on out). All smiles, but under the smiles, dark forces rising.
After complaining about how she has never won a Pulitzer (a complaint she made often over the semester, as if we could do something about it; she would even occasionally make jokes about past winners and the judges- no one would laugh), she asked who had poems, most raised their hands, including myself, and she asked each of us to read one thing we brought.
Oh, innocent Scott! I read a sonnet. A blooming sonnet about visiting the Lake District the year before and wondering about Coleridge! I think I even had a whisper in the wind if you can believe it!
OK, so after each student shared their poems, we took a break and when we returned to the classroom, Darth Poet began to list the poems read from worse (18) to best (1). And she didn’t hold back at all in describing why a poem was bad. It was brutal. It was harsh. If anything, she seemed to enjoy the negatives more than the positives, and God help the person who was stuck first on a day; for this was the structure that was used for the entire semester.
Now, for me, being someone who didn’t understand poetry to begin with, the critiques on my poems didn’t hurt really, only confused me and drove in me a desire to understand more. Yes, I did the sonnet form correct. Yes, I captured an older more romantic voice. But, simply, it was not poetry anymore and should be destroyed. And for that, I deserved scorn and ridicule it seemed. Again, it didn’t bother me that much (I mean, if you get into the arts you better expect a bad review from time to time; reviewers don’t typically worry about an artist’s feelings, and rightly so if they have a point about a work to make). If anything, I could feel that I was not alone. Other poems were attacked as well, and those reactions were more fascinating to watch, since many times these poets cared more about their little treasures.
And this is how it played out each class period, we students would bring a piece in and each week she would tell us which was the best and which the worse was. Every week, every single week, we would have students crying, every week we would have students arguing with the teacher and every week Darth Poet would smile. Oh, she was always smiling. And she would smile the more people fought back. And the fact, you could not really get her goat; it only seemed to egg on the struggling poets more in their complaints to her face.
I remember one moment when a younger poet (who got permission to take this graduate level course) read her work about a break up. The poem takes place over a silent car ride, and even though the couple does not speak, you can tell they are getting distant because of the environment around them. Neat idea, right? Well, Darth Poet hated it and listed it as the worse poem of the week. The poet broke down in tears and explained that it was a true story and it meant something; to which Darth Poet replied (something akin to this), “Because it means something to you, doesn’t mean you should arrogantly assume anyone else would care.”
That poet stormed out and didn’t return to the classroom for three classes.
The best poet in the class, who I will call Padawan (see, keeping with the Star Wars references), wrote these longer poems about growing up in the south and Darth Poet sensed great potential in him. He would usually appear at the front of the line each week, but he despised Darth Poet and seemed to be more driven to hate her with each compliment she gave him. Padawan wanted to be with us, not with her! Finally, he couldn’t take it, and on one of the last classes, he stood up, gave a long-winded speech about what poetry and teaching is for, spat on the desk in front of Darth Poet (Yes, I wrote spat) and stormed out, never to be seen again.
Oh, how Darth Poet smiled at that moment… It was the creepest thing ever. Like the Grinch in the holiday special.
I also think he got the only A in the class.
For me, since I never considered myself a poet nor really cared, I was experimenting. I tried different styles of writing, seeing what would click. I tried making pictures with words (Zap!), I tried haikus (Bam!), and very rarely, in a class of 18 did I get below the number of 9. Except for one day….
I was working on a short story and I decided to randomly take one sentence from the story. With eyes closed, I choose a random page, spun it around in front of me and pointed a finger down. I then took the sentence cut it up on a page and handed it in as my selection.
I still can’t believe how much I cared as the numbers counted down (12, 11, 10) and my work was still not listed. (9, 8) My little “poem” had passed the halfway mark! Most of the poems on this side of the line avoided much of the lambasting. I might not even get an evil smirk (7, 6. 5,). Now, I was feeling giddy and I felt weird about feeling giddy. I like a good competition like anyone else, but why was this exciting me? I hated her, I even disliked her work, which I read a few books of in an attempt to get into her mind; and yet, the idea of getting her praise strangely meant something at that moment. My leg was starting to jitter as the numbers kept going down. (4, 3).
I was number three.
I wrote the third best poem!
The one sentence from a short story I cut up on a page and handed in was the third best poem that week, beating out people that call themselves “poet” on their income tax form. I knew I couldn’t really claim I did anything important; it was all an illusion really since it was a sentence and I knew it was not a poem; but I still loved the praise.
After the class, I spoke with some of the other students, as we typically did angrily cursing the class, and because of my ranking, I was not part of the group anymore. If anything they seemed to look on me as something like a spy. I playfully tried to explain that it wasn’t really a poem, but that had the opposite reaction. I had tricked my way into their secret society for a night, and now they wanted me out as soon as possible (at least before I learned the secret handshake).
In the last few classes, I did not do as well with my other experiments into poetry. Strangely, I still walked away with a B from the class, but I didn’t learn anything besides that everything I have studied about poetry in classic literature classes is now all horribly wrong in the eye of the contemporary poet.
So today when I meet poets—especially ones that would like me to read one of their works—I will be polite, but usually I will do my best to find a useable excuse for not touching their works if it comes up. As we learned from Star Wars, the Sith can sometimes be right in front of us and we might never know.
UPDATE: I would like to apologize for not referencing the name of the Lansing poet in this editorial (considering the humorous focus of the article, I wasn’t certain it was a good idea to do so at the time since the line was so serious on the billboard). Her name is Melissa Dey Hasbrook. Here is a link to her blog and her writing- http://deyofthephoenix.com/blog/
Also, it was noted by Melissa Dey Hasbrook on her blog that she thought there was a gender bias in this article. I would like it noted that it was not my intention in this article to present such a view. I’m pretty sure I would have the same confusion and fear in a room with male poets, including the romantic poets I reference in the article (I’m sure Byron would have overly terrified me, for example). I wish her the best with her work and future endeavors.