Thursday, April 12, 2012

Why I Don't Write Poetry

I mentioned in The Order of Things that I don't much like poetry.

Since that day, just last month, Adrienne Rich passed away. I was sorry to hear that she had passed; she's a poet whose work I really like. She had a lot of impact on a lot of lives, and was willing to be a strong women when others would not or could not. I don't know anything about her politics; I only know some of her poems. And they are very good.

But, poetry. I don't much write poetry either. I wrote a couple of poems in college,  and they are very much college poems. Not because they're about drinking or frats or what have you, but because of the quality of writing. Little that I wrote in college may see the light of day in its college form; I'm not sure if any of it hasn't been re-edited at this point, if not entirely rewritten.

I can be casual with my words. I can be braggy in conversation, using words I know that perhaps others won't. I like feeling smart. Sorry.

With poetry, though, every word matters. Syllables and sentences run into each other and away with each other, and with good poetry, poetry that I like that that others have published, and that I'm happy has seen the light of day, that poetry has layers of meaning. There are the words. Then there are the references they're making. Then there is the new thing that they all make together. Then there is the place you take those things, and make it something new for you.

I don't write poems like that. Can I? Maybe. It would be very hard, and undoubtedly worth it, but words of such weight aren't how my stories tend to speak to me. Not that fiction is "easy" either, but it's not as hard. Easy and hard aren't even the words I mean, they're layman's translations for gut feelings and visceral reactions. Poetry is evocative of different things for me than fiction, a different place in my brain where Ginsberg smokes (did Ginsberg smoke?) and Eliot prays (preys?) and Anne Sexton is more than a little mad (crazy, that is, not angry).

The starting line of a poem is like a reverse fishing lure: it bobs on the surface, waiting for you to strike and catch yourself, and then it pulls you down with it.

"Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The Muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedius argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question....
Oh, do not ask "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit."

~The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T. S. Eliot


  1. I think I hate poetry myself. I still read it because damn I respect poets. They do it, work hard, and get barely any credit. Plus there is some real awesome poetry, the experimental stuff, that I like to read. I think us fiction writers can learn a lot from them.

    1. Yeah, poetry isn't something that I can say that I "like", but I can list poems or poets, specifically, that I like. I do think there's a difference.

      And I do agree with you, fiction writers would do well to learn from poets.

  2. I love good poetry, but I'm complete junk at it. All of it ends up being humorous doggerel, usually on purpose.

    1. Humorous doggerel can be fun, though! Sometimes purely "for fun" writing turns out to be genuinely good, which is a pleasant surprise.