Wednesday, March 20, 2013

On Poetry (part 3)

Many of you may be wondering, at this point, why I'm bothering to talk about poetry at all; after all, as I already pointed out, "Only poets read poetry." What does it have to do with everyone else? Well... honestly? Nothing.

And everything.

Just for the aesthetics, I think everyone who is a reader, which should be everyone even though it's not, should learn how to read poetry. Not the new stuff, either. I mean really learn to read poetry. I'm fairly convinced that learning to read poetry broadens our minds to the beauty of language, saying things elegantly, and allows us expand upon the types of things that we read. I'm sorry, but I don't care if you read 500 books last year if 498 of them were romance or light fantasy. That's the equivalent of only eating candy. Okay, I'm not really sorry. None of which  is to say that you need to always be reading poetry; I don't spend a lot of time with poetry anymore, but I used to, which is part of why I don't spend so much time with it, now, because, as I've said numerous times, I'm not much on re-reading.

There are also some great stories that ought to be experienced in the language and form they were written in as much as possible. Thinks like Beowulf and Gilgamesh. Heck, I've even read Le Morte d'Arthur, and, my gosh, there is so much more there than in any modern interpretations of Malory. Not that I'm suggesting that everyone run out and buy a copy of Malory, because, man, that was a tough read, and it took me a year to get through it. The point is that we miss so much by just discounting older, poetic works.

But writers... well, I don't really understand why any writer would discount poetry, especially classical poetry, as something not worthwhile to, at least, read. To be a good writer, a writer must write, but a writer must also read, and the more broadly the writer readers, the better his writing grows. Poetry is certainly not something that should be discounted just because it's poetry.

Of course, I think authors should also write poetry. And I don't mean author's should write prose in verse form and call it free verse, either. Authors can only benefit from learning the structure and flow of poetry and practice at writing it. It's like a football player taking ballet, and I don't think you'll find any that have done that who will tell you that it was a waste of time. Personally, I think the sonnet works best, because it has such a rigid structure. If you can write a sonnet, you can write anything.

And, no, I'm not much of a poet. I tried for a good long time at it though. Back when I was 15 or so, I had it stuck in my head that you couldn't be a "real" writer unless you wrote poetry. That was the dividing line between being a "writer" and being a "real writer." But, then, teenagers always have strange ideas. I wrote a lot of poetry back then. All of it bad. I probably still have it packed away somewhere, but I don't think I'd want to read about 99% of it. I focused on poetry early on in college, too, until one of my professors famously told me, "This is great prose, but it's lousy poetry," a statement that really opened my eyes to everything that I've been talking about in these posts about how poetry is not (and can not be) just prose written in verse form.

So, yeah, from time to time, I play with poetry. I have sonnets. And, at some point, I'll share some of them. I have some project notes for some more substantial pieces of poetry, too, but poetry requires a lot of time and effort on my part, that whole what is stressed and what is not is really difficult for me, always has been, so I end up pushing those projects down the list in favor of things I can finish more quickly. But, so as not to leave you empty-handed and to prove that, yes, I stand by what I'm saying here, I'll give you a sample of something I wrote a few years ago. Right before I started House, I think. Or, maybe, right after I started it. A few years ago, at any rate. No explanations this time, because it's always better to see how the reader interprets these things rather than just spelling it out, but I might be willing to answer some questions, depending upon what they are, if anyone has any.

The Dissolution of Love

The snow fell hard and heavy the day we
met, covering over that old empty
field. Filling in the holes, hiding the roots
and broken glass from our crunching boots.
The snow grew deep, blanketing all in white
and hiding all that was wrong from our sight.
In this pristine place, we would meet and play
in the field of snow until the day
was gone. And the days, they passed, and the snow
continued to fall and deepen and grow.
Until one day, we did decide to make
a snowman and, on this, put all at stake.
So we set to work upon the base
piling up the snow with all due haste.
Upon this base we placed the body that
Together we rolled into being, patting
the snow down hard and firm. Then the head
settled at last upon the top and wed
to the body below. Now complete but
for the details. Two rocks for eyes we put
upon the face and then for the nose and
mouth we added more. Our gloves for the hands,
we each gave one, joining our naked palms
to keep them warm. Our hearts, as one, grew calm
as we placed our last tokens: my hat, your
scarf. In our knowledge that all was secure,
we walked away to other things, other
pursuits, sure that our snowman would be safe.
Hand-in-hand, enjoying one another,
we left him alone like a long lost waif.
Forgotten, he stayed as we went on our
way, until we reached a time when joined hands
became a burden. So in that hour
we returned to where our lonely man stands
and retrieved our gloves so that we could act
independently. One eye, we found, had
fallen loose. Recognizing, then, the fact
that left alone he would not last, in gladness
we made a vow to watch over him
together. But quickly tiresome that chore
grew and, so, we forsook that very whim
and the promise that would have held us more
tightly bound together. Alone we left
him, once again, to brave the coming storm.
The rains and winds came as he stood bereft
of care and then the sun to rob his form.
The sun, more frequently, would show its eye,
driving back the snow and breaking the frost
that held the little field in grip. The sky,
cleared to blue, loosed its wind and winter lost
its battle. With no snow left to hold us,
we parted ways without a backward glance
for our poor creation. The wind’s last gust
lost my hat. Your scarf left, muddied, to dance
in the wind, caught in the last patch of snow --
the dirty heap of snow left behind from
our joint endeavor. But how could we know
that this would be all that that would become?

copyright 2013 Andrew Leon


  1. I can't believe there are writers alive today that aren't conversant in poetry. Verse has a particular rhythm to it and it should help a writer broaden their ability to express an idea or a convey a scene.

  2. I read Anne's comment. I guess stating that I don't read or write poetry now would be a bad idea.

  3. Poetry's great if you're trying to woo someone or seem smart. Otherwise it's like fine wine or classical music where I have no ability to differentiate "bad" from "good".

  4. I'm with PT but only to a point. I know bad poetry when I see it, but I don't necessarily know "good."

    So, backhanded compliment - I love your poem. It reads to me like a tale of divorce, with the two losing some of their things at the end (physical and otherwise), and I think it's great. But what do I know? :D

  5. Wow.

    Wow with a garnish of wow.

    First off, let me comment on comments. Poetry's bad-ness or good-ness, like almost any art, is in the eye of the beholder. When Mr Bunches draws a ninja on his chalkboard that looks more like a box holding a bow above its head, that probably doesn't compare to what Rusty could do, but I might prefer it more. That's a pretty easy comparison, but it holds up. If you like a poem, it's a good poem. If you don't , it's a bad poem. That's how I look at it. I'll leave aside the squishier "I didn't like it but I recognize that it is high quality" characterizations for someone else to fault me on, because I think the most basic test of art is "did it evoke an emotion?" and if it did, it wins. (So long as that emotion is not "Boy this is crap," which is for another time.)

    I'm curious as to why Alex doesn't read poetry. Ever? Not as a regular thing? Did he read your poem? I take it to mean "I don't seek out poetry to read but will read it if confronted by it," which says everything that needs to be said. Sometimes a form of art isn't for someone. I'm not much for hip hop music, even though I recognize that some of it is pretty good or high quality. It's just not my thing. But even with that, I bet there's at least one song from every category of music that won me over and made me like at least that song, so maybe there's a poem out there for Alex. Perhaps YOUR poem.

    Which is a wonderful poem. I read it aloud, as I like to do, and liked the way the rhythm sort of shambles a bit, like a person walking in the woods: there's a beat to it, but that beat is broken up and softened, which fits the mood of the poem.

    I like, too, the way you took what could have been a trite image: the snowman, the couple, the melting -- and made it seem more. You invested it with some heft, transforming what might have been a 7th-grade poem into something with more emotional weight.

    Was it just me, or was the snowman perhaps a stand-in, for a child of the couple?

    "Recognizing, then, the fact
    that left alone he would not last, in gladness
    we made a vow to watch over him
    together. But quickly tiresome that chore
    grew and, so, we forsook that very whim
    and the promise that would have held us more
    tightly bound together..."

    Sounds like parents watching over a sick child. Every parent wants to protect their kids, but upon realizing that the child might be more immediately fragile, they might do what you said: we're going to watch him, all the time, but the weight of that burden, for it is a burden, can tear apart as easily as it blends together.

    I see this, wrongly or rightly, as the story of a marriage in which the child died young, and the sickness itself was what tore apart the couple. And if I'm right, that makes the "dirty heap of snow left behind" all the sadder. I went and re-read it with that idea and it's immensely sad.

    So if that's not what you meant, sorry? But that's what I got out of it. "My Aunt's Dog" and all.

    Excellent excellent poem.

  6. Anne: I would think it's actually most of them. If I were to guess.

    Alex: You'd have to take that up with Anne, I guess.

    PT: Poetry used to be something that everyone did, so I don't think it's just for smart people.

    ABftS: I think poetry is like reading any other writing. You have to learn to do it, and, then, you read what you like.

    Michael: Thank you.

  7. Briane: First, your comment about the comments: I agree, as I was saying ABftS before I got your comment.

    As I said in a previous post, though, 95% of people will choose to NOT read a poem even when it's put right in front of them, so I couldn't guess as to whether Alex read it or not.

    As for the rhythm of the poem, I have to make up for my lack of rhythm with meaning. I'd like to be able to write poetry that makes you feel like you're floating on waves in the ocean, but I'm no good with that stuff.

    As for the meaning, I think it's too early in the day to talk about that, but you're interpretation is certainly valid.

    I think more than in prose, readers bring their own interpretation to poetry based on their own experiences, and poets kind of have to be okay with that.

  8. I had someone challenge me to a sonnet smackdown last summer. Well, I mean, we each agreed to tackle a sonnet and share it. Took me three weeks to finish it to my satisfaction. Still don't know if I like it.

    And nice work. Great imagery.

  9. L.G.: Did you post it?
    I have some sonnets I will probably get around to posting at some point.

  10. I may have put it on my writing page at one time, but took it down. I thought I might include it in my novel, since I have bards who go to the Eisteddfod and perform, but not sure it's the right sort of thing to include. I'm not a very good poet. :)

  11. I liked the story but not sure I recognise it as poetry either, my familiarity with poetry goes back further than this style.


  12. L.G.: Yeah, probably a sonnet is not the kind of thing a bard would be performing. Probably.
    I'm not a very good poet, either.

    Jo: Hmm, I'm not actually sure what you mean by that. This is pretty standard stylistically.

  13. It's later in the day, now.

    I actually don't want you to explain the poem. I agree with you that everyone brings their own conception to it. I generally refuse to explain my poems, or my writing, at all. I think it has to stand on its own and convey a meaning to the reader.

  14. I like the open interpretation aspect of poetry...though I think the same could be said of good prose. But poetry in particular lends itself to personal interpretation, so I wouldn't explain. Let others take what they want of it.

    And La Mort D'Arthur - amazing.

  15. S.L.: Well, I wasn't ever just going to explain it, but there are questions I would answer.

  16. Briane, I don't read the level of poetry to which Andrew refers. I read my blogger buddies' poetry, which I'm sure he'd classify as poetic prose and not real poetry.

  17. Alex: That depends upon whether it's free verse or not, and, if it is, whether it has any structure.