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On Poetry: What “Bad’’ Poetry Can Teach Us

I was at a gathering not long ago — the venue isn’t important — when I heard a Marine recite a poem. He’d been struggling after getting home, and small wonder: twice deployed to Afghanistan, he’d also been twice wounded, one of those times pretty seriously. He told us that the poem he gave us had kept him going through several horrific ordeals.

I think the poem was called Hope. It was awful.

For all its cliches and bromides, however, that poem had been a literal life-saver for the man, so by what right do I call it awful?

How do I claim the superiority of “high art”? Speculation on such matters provides a subtext for this column, in which, like the others, I mean to avoid strong opinion, making clear that my judgments are that, period: my judgments, hence not ones with any special authority. So as I consider quality versus awfulness here, I mean primarily to raise an issue, not to offer some pat and prescriptive solution to it; I’m far from convinced that one is available.

Driving home after that meeting, I got to thinking back some 20 years, when my wife and I were sitting one evening in a backcountry restaurant. Apart from us, there were only three patrons: a mother, her adult daughter and her son-in-law. The daughter had composed a poem for her mom’s birthday, and we couldn’t help overhearing it. This poem too was awful.

After that restaurant experience, I started now and then to conduct a contest in my introductory writing classes. At the time, there was a saying abroad, adopted from the Peanuts comic strip: Happiness is a Warm Puppy. The prize went to the young man or woman who could use it effectively in a poem.

Why should that have been such a challenge? Well, I was and remain a dog lover; my wife and I have three in the house just now, in fact a rather low number for us historically. And yes, as a rule, they make us happy. They can also be colossal pains in the you-know-what, and never more so than when they are puppies: those unwelcome deposits on floor and rug; those chewed chairs and cushions; that yapping in the predawn hours. And so on. Happiness Is a Warm Puppy? Oh, yeah? Tell me that while I’m cleaning up after one or another of these catastrophes.

The point I tried to make to my students was that generality and abstraction of such a sort were perilous territory for poets. They can too easily be argued with. But I suggested by implication that it might be possible for so apparently trite and equivocal a phrase to make its way into a piece of writing without sounding merely saccharine, without inviting that ready “who says so” response. In short, I meant to advise the students that there might after all be room in their work for abstraction, generality, and so on.

Over the years, too many of us teachers have unthinkingly mouthed that old workshop-worn saw, Show, don’t tell, despite the fact that the dictum scarcely holds up under scrutiny. Would anyone really have advised John Keats to leave “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty” out of his ode on the urn? Would anyone have chastised Emily Dickinson for telling and not showing when he or she came upon “Publication — is the Auction/Of the Mind of Man,” or Yeats when he or she read that “The best lack all conviction while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”? No, poetic lines like these — lines that unabashedly tell — are more than simply allowable; they, and many rhetorically similar ones, constitute some of the most memorable lines in English-language poetry.

Abstraction/generality in and of itself, then, is not what causes problems, not what invites contrary argument, not what causes a poem to wallow in gushy sentimentality. The difficulty arises when there is nothing besides generalized diction. When that’s all there is, we hear an unsettling echo of Hallmark card verse.

By my lights, the voice of the poem must not “float free” of the occasion that spawned it.

In short, I believe, generalized diction needs to be grounded: we have to know what lies under it. And, related, as the old buzz phrase of the sixties put it, we must know where the poet is coming from.

Truth is, I found myself profoundly moved by the awful poem recited by that brave Marine, precisely because I knew he was a Marine, one who had suffered grievous wounds in his service. I was moved by the daughter’s birthday verse too, precisely because I could see the dramatis personae. I was in the physical presence of thinking, feeling individuals.

“Serious” poets, however, must provide that sort of presence within the poem. Maybe they should think of their words as being delivered to an anonymous reader, one who cannot be expected to know the composition’s circumstances on the basis of anything but the composition itself.

We so-called serious poets ought not to write, I believe, in the manner of the woman in the restaurant or the author of the Marine’s verse. But maybe we are obliged to contemplate why such “bad” poetry seems to have such a grip on many a hearer or reader. Our allegedly refined sensibilities cannot themselves “float free” of the common circumstances we confront as a species. That Marine and that daughter must, so to speak, somehow be introduced into our work, or rather, some element or another has to provide the equivalent of their living, breathing, human attendance at that gathering or at that restaurant.

To elevate our work above the modes we dismiss, perhaps too facilely, I think we must let our listeners in on where our poems are coming from. If we don’t, the result may not be sappiness; but we may well stray in a direction that, to my mind, is at least as undesirable: aloofness, snottiness, or worst of all, impenetrability.

Sydney Lea is a resident of Newbury and the Poet Laureate of Vermont.