Poetry Friday: Our Favorite Poems

This post is likely to get me in trouble.  But what’s the point in blogging about poetry if you’re not going to speak your mind?  I’ll try to keep it civil, at least.

So, I started thinking about today’s topic earlier this week, when Paul H. (faithful reader, frequent commenter, English teacher extraordinaire, and all-around nice guy) posted something on Facebook about poetry.  I’m going to ruthlessly condense and paraphrase—essentially, Paul was ruminating on the fact that, every year, his high school has an anti-drunk-driving presentation that’s really powerful, and every year they read aloud the same poem during the most moving portion of the presentation.  Afterwards plenty of his kids comment on how much they loved that poem, and how they wonder if they can memorize it for credit or discuss it in class, etc.  And Paul is simultaneously glad that the message of the presentation got through to them and horrified at their love of what is pretty obviously an awful poem.  He asked us, his friends, a demographic that leans heavily into the poetry reading, English teaching, bookish end of things, to offer our thoughts on why it is that teenagers love bad poems more than good ones, and whether it was a good or a bad thing, and what if anything he should say about the poem if a student tries to discuss it with him.  I won’t be using that poem today, or the exact pieces of that discussion (my contributions or anyone else’s) but I did find the larger topic of what most Americans like in their poetry interesting and thought it would be worth reflecting on here.

Walt Whitman's use of free verse became apprec...

I’m sorry, Papa Walt, but I really do think that a majority of Americans would guess that the person who sounds his “barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world” was either Robin Williams or Homer Simpson. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is a “good poem”, anyway?  An alien trying to sort this out would think, from the available evidence, that America likes a good challenging poem.  If you look around for it, you’ll find something like this best poem contest hosted by the Oxford Book of American Poetry, which concluded that America’s favorite poem is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, which narrowly beat out Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”.  This is, to be blunt, a fairly clumsy lie.  Oh, sure, the type of people who will cast ballots at Oxford University Press’s site are probably being at least mostly honest—though even I, a fan of both poems, think they’re pretty dense going to rate as “America’s favorite” (neither would be my pick, anyway).  But I’d be shocked if even 10% of Americans could identify the most famous lines in either poem, or tell you without consulting a reference source even a vague description of what either poem is about (though Whitman sort of gives that game away with his title).

What would a better representation of “America’s favorite poems” be?  There’s no one source, but I had a style in mind I’ve seen frequently, and I guessed I could find it pretty quickly.  I googled phrases like “best poem” or “favorite poem”, etc., and quickly found a website called “family friend poems”.  They assure the reader that “we only publish poems after we already know they are well liked by our audience.”  They also keep a list of the top rated poems, the best of which has been rated a few thousand times.  Is that any better sample than OUP had?  Probably not, but I think the style of this poem captures the style of poem that I honestly think a lot of folks like (or claim to), and it’s similar in many ways to the poem Paul originally called to my attention.  Here’s their poem, “Why I Love My Sister“, by Shiv Sharma:

“A sister is someone who loves you from the heart,
No matter how much you argue you cannot be drawn apart.
She is a joy that cannot be taken away,
Once she enters your life, she is there to stay.

A friend who helps you through difficult times,
Her comforting words are worth much more than dimes.
A partner who fills your life with laughs and smile,
These memories last for miles and miles.

When she is by your side, the world is filled with life,
When she is not around, your days are full of strife.
A sister is a blessing, who fills your heart with love,
She flies with you in life with the beauty of a dove.

A companion to whom you can express your feelings,
She doesn’t let you get bored at family dealings.
Whether you are having your ups or downs,
She always helps you with a smile and never frowns.

With a sister you cannot have a grudge,
She is as sweet as chocolate and as smooth as fudge.
Having a sister is not just a trend,
It is knowing you can always turn to her, your best friend.”

Now, I do want to make clear that my goal isn’t to attack anybody, including the author of this poem, Sharma, or the readers who voted for this poem and consider it among their favorites.  My interest is in trying to figure out A) why so many Americans do like poems like this, to the extent that they are all over my Facebook feed and all over blogs and tumblrs and quoted from frequently in online profiles, etc., and B) why I and most Americans who read a lot of poetry, including the poets who are widely accepted as being “the best” by the sort of experts who try to rate such things, find this kind of poem really unsuccessful, and lastly, C) what, if anything, this tells us about poetry and Americans and how they relate to each other.

I’m taking for granted a premise you may disagree with—that the above poem is a good representation of the sort of poem that most Americans, especially Americans who do not read a lot of poetry in their ordinary lives, find appealing.  My Google searching suggests I’m on pretty firm ground, but I’m not going to try and establish this with firm evidence.  Disputes of this claim should be taken up in the comments.

I don’t care for this poem.  At all.  But in some ways it’s not that far off of poems that I can see as successful.  Another widely loved poem is Mary Elizabeth Frye’s “Do not stand at my grave and weep“, and as you can see if you follow that link to another PF post, I took that poem seriously and defended it against those who consider it merely cheap and trite (though I did accept that it has its trite moments).  Why do people love it?  Here are my guesses, which are sincere in intention but may be wide of the mark.  The poem directly addresses an emotion that is easy to relate to—our love of a relative.  Culturally we sometimes have a hard time expressing why we care about someone, and the advantage of a poem about that exact thing is that it can be used to both express those feelings and distance ourselves from the vulnerability of trying to figure out how to say it ourselves: this is what is often called “greeting card poetry”, and while that may be a mostly pejorative term, let’s at least acknowledge that it can serve a useful purpose for a lot of folks.  Unlike other poems, this one is direct, its phrases are generally clear and unambiguous, and the rhyme pattern is easy to identify and pleasing to the ear—or at least we can say that English speakers do really seem to love them some end-stopped rhyme (other languages, to my limited knowledge, seem less obsessive about it).  The poem is so general that anyone can feel it represents them, but the images are chosen in such a way that they can be interpreted personally in really specific ways, e.g., “yeah, remember that time when Linda saved me from a boring chat with Uncle Ted at Xmas? wow, she really does look out for me during ‘family dealings’.”  Did Sharma just toss this off?  I kind of doubt it.  I suspect this is the work of someone who’s both spent some time writing poems like this, and some time tinkering with this one, to get it to the point where it accomplishes all this.  There is craft here that has a specific audience and aim in mind, and clearly at this website, at least, it achieves it.

But back to me and my dislike for the poem.  I don’t want to just rip this apart—it’s the work of an amateur (in the true sense; it’s clearly a work of love), not a professional, so the blog’s mighty cannons will not be trained against it as they were at, say, The Able McLaughlins (which I’m thinking of referring to as The Novel Which Shall Not Be Named from now on).  But I do want to be clear about why this is really a poor example of what I think poetry can and should do, the kind of poem I would never otherwise even read, let alone post on this blog.  The things others might love about it are what I dislike.  Poetry has the capacity to be startling and complex—unlike prose, which is ordinarily so very communicative, poetry eludes us, offers us multiple paths to meaning, argues with us.  The directness of this poem is irritating to me: there’s no complexity here, nothing for me to discover later, or to mull over until I gain a sudden insight.  It feels as artistic to me as a list of ingredients on a package—I basically know what I’m in for the moment I start reading, and there isn’t much to hold my interest.  I’m a fan of poems that ditch rhythm and rhyme in order to be plain-spoken, and of poems that ditch plain-spokenness to play with sound and rhythm.  This falls in the deadly valley between the two—some of the rhymes are tragically unfortunate, as words chosen solely for their sound undercut an otherwise plain sentence and make the speaker sound insincere or almost mocking.  A sister whose words are worth more than ten cents and whose existence is more than a trend (unlike, say, jeggings) is someone on the receiving end of compliments so back-handed they could win Wimbledon.  And ultimately, the poem spends too much time saying too little for me.  Any relationship is more complicated than this—each line of this poem more or less reiterates the same thesis.  A haiku would be too long a poem for this theme, which I think boils down to “My sister is awesome and I love her” although I sort of suspect this is really “My hypothetical sister is awesome and I theoretically love her”.  And yes, that last one was more than seventeen syllables.  I think you get my point.

Again, my goal here isn’t to rag on people who like poems I don’t like.  I’d much rather that Americans like these poems than that they like no poems at all.  But I have to be honest in admitting that I would rather live in a country where we really did read and talk about Eliot and Whitman.  I think that kind of poetry forces us to think more deeply, examine ourselves more closely, and ultimately bring more of our experiences out into a mindspace where we can actually do something useful with them.  But all of this may just be snobbery, right?  It could be that I’m just another sour-faced lit-blogger who has snarky thoughts about the “hoi polloi” and their sub-standard popular art.  I’m not sure, though.  I feel like the types of movies and television that are popular with the vast majority of Americans are not usually what I consider to be “the best” but that they’re a lot closer to the best stuff than this popular poetry is to what I consider to be “the best poetry”.  That is, unlike my aloof demeanor about other kinds of art, which is probably fairly characterized as a little snobby (“Well, frankly, I think the best film this awards season is that dark Iranian piece about the collapse of middle-class families.”), in the case of poetry, I feel like this is just me assessing the artistic landscape fairly.  But maybe not?

I guess the questions I’m left with are the following, any of which I hope will be taken up in the comments.  Am I selling this kind of poetry short or otherwise missing out on what makes it popular?  Is it plausible that America’s taste in poetry could significantly move towards what I consider to be “good poetry” or is it unrealistic to think that less sentimental rhyme-y poetry can take hold with the masses?  Lastly, does anyone have experience with popular taste in poetry outside the U.S. sufficiently to be able to tell me if this impulse is human, or if there’s something uniquely American about this type of artistic taste?  There’s something important here that I wish I understood better.  It’s related to why I try every Friday (well, all the Fridays I can) to bring a good poem into the lives of other people and talk a little about why poetry is vital to me as a person, and I think should be vital to all of us as people.  So thanks in advance for letting me have my say, apologies again to folks who think I’m too hard on Sharma or Americans or rhyming couplets, and I look forward to any thoughts offered in the comments section below.

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30 comments on “Poetry Friday: Our Favorite Poems

  1. shane says:

    James:
    I think that it may be partially that Americans are less exposed to poetry. Until you have seen a lot of these poems, you might not lose the taste for them and want something more. I remember when I first started writing poetry, I hadn’t read a poem that didn’t rhyme. I didn’t even think that was a poem. And my first poems were very direct, rhymy and such like. I think as Americans we consume a lot more movies and even books than we do poetry. I’m not even sure why, as it seems like poetry, which is a very very short story could be popular. You could say ‘look, I know you don’t have time to read a novel, but check this out, it is only one page long’. Like, you could read it in a commercial break. At least, that’s the hook.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Shane, these are good thoughts. I definitely agree that the poetry I liked was a lot closer to this when I was young (although I feel like I wouldn’t ever have liked this one….revisionist history? perhaps). Your thoughts about how much we consume, and how that refines our taste, I think are spot on. And like you I wonder why we can’t get Americans to try these bite-sized stories….maybe because there’s no commercial way to get them in front of them? And because honestly it can take a while to read that one page if it’s deep and complex enough? I don’t know. 🙂

    • jacob says:

      Have either of you read Nailed magazine’s poetry page? They seem to trying to put poetry in front of folks who don’t read poetry. They, for example, have people doing poetry on the news of the day. Succeeding? You tell me.

      • jwrosenzweig says:

        I hadn’t before—I just went there and read a few. I’m not particularly enthralled with the (perhaps unrepresentative) sample I took, poems that seem a little too “on the nose” at times, especially the attempts at occasional verse that comment on current events (these are almost always too message-y for me), but I applaud any efforts to make poetry mainstream and I certainly think the quality level on that page exceeds that on the Family Friend Poems site I looked at yesterday. Poems on the news of the day were once very common—quite a 19th century thing to do—and maybe it is a good way of getting verse back into vogue, I don’t know. Like I said, to me, they usually lack the ambiguity that appeals to me in verse. But I may be misjudging them….if there was one that you particularly liked, I hope you’ll point it out, since if they can reliably hit even just “decent poem” on a daily basis, it would be a real achievement, I think.

        • jacob says:

          I suppose you are right on the message-y-ness of the current event poems. Were there any poets that came out of the 19th century newspaper poetry scene that were worth reading as poets? I imagine it is a great curiosity to just read that old verse – to see their assumed attitudes, to laugh perhaps at ones that seem to us now silly.

          I do appreciate many of the Nailed poems, though they don’t end up being my favorites. I like reading them in the context of such a website.

        • jwrosenzweig says:

          Those really are great! And not just because the last one is an excellent Chicago poem. Okay, if Nailed can post this kind of thing even semi-regularly, I get why you like their poetry page. 🙂 I may have to use this Rakovan fellow for a Poetry Friday—more than one of those begs for some prolonged reflection/analysis. Thanks, Jacob!

  2. Paul Hamann says:

    James–You positively nail it here: ” I feel like the types of movies and television that are popular with the vast majority of Americans are not usually what I consider to be “the best” but that they’re a lot closer to the best stuff than this popular poetry is to what I consider to be ‘the best poetry’.”

    Upon retrospect, and upon having my friends–especially my teacher friends–talk me down, I conclude that the -context- of a drunk driving assembly is not a good place to get kids into the world of meaty poetry of the last century. But, for the love of God, do we really have to go to rhymes that not even Sting would attempt (love the guy, hate about a dozen of his hilariously forced rhymes)?

    Some disjointed thoughts:

    I read poems like Sharma’s fairly often from my HS kids, and I have no issue with a HS kid writing a poem like that. I find an image or two I like, compliment those images, and then suggest new things they can try in order to grow. I guess that, if one is to call one’s self a poet as an adult, however, I would like evidence that one has read poetry of some significance or import. Not that everyone should try to sound like Shakespeare or Whitman or Auden or Ashbery or Collins, but that one at least would sound different after having seen such things.

    I also think that we judge poetry more by emotional content than by craft. We don’t do that with other art, do we? Short stories? Film? Painting? “Gosh, there was a lot of intense emotion in that painting, therefore it was good”? I’m not sure there’s an equivalent.

    If Miley Cyrus had a popular song about a sister or driving drunk, it would blow the doors off examples like those we have given. And if it were played at the key point of my assembly, it honestly wouldn’t bug me nearly so much.

    Anyway, I don’t like going off on Sharma, who has written a poem more popular than any I have ever written or will ever write. I can hear her chanting “Score-board!!!!” Nonetheless, I thank you for clarifiying my feelings on the issue.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks, Paul—it’s a point that I arrived at suddenly and which clarified things for me as well. And you’re right that your particular scenario is probably not the right spot for Dulce Et Decorum Est and the like. 🙂 But I do feel like the larger question is important—is there ever a time to try and “move the ball” on this?

      You’re right that we’d have totally different standards for poets learning to write—pretty much all of us start out writing like this. I have no clue if Sharma is young or old, or how early a stage in a poet’s career this particular example represents. That matters. But it’s one thing to write this type of poetry as a stage, or even to appreciate it at that stage because it’s yours or because you can see where the poet is heading. It’s another to consider this more or less the end and goal of poetry. I think that’s what you’re driving at with the “evidence that one has read poetry of significance” except that I don’t even necessarily need that, personally. I need the depth I was talking about, the acknowledgement that the only reason to write poetry (instead of something else) is to offer more than one layer of meaning. Most of the time when we have things to communicate we write an email or leave a post-it note and that’s fine, but poetry shouldn’t sound like a post-it note—or if it does, like WCW’s famous plum apology, it should offer more than one way of reading it. That’s my position, anyway.

      I’ve heard people judge other art forms by emotion but far less so. I think there’s a sense that poetry is “personal” in ways that other art is not. A film full of emotion that is not well directed is not excused (by most of us) but you’re right, the poet gets that excuse. Maybe it’s the “I’m ok you’re ok” school of poetic non-criticism that English teachers pushed a generation ago? You know, the “anything goes in a poem, anything you see in a poem is a valid response, poetry is about FEELINGS” sort of vibe? We don’t talk that way anymore (well, most of us), but maybe it sank in? Or am I over-generalizing?

      And one last note—you’re right about not wanting to go off on Sharma. I tried writing this post without an example but I found I couldn’t be abstract about this, and I needed to try and explain why it didn’t work. My praise of the poem’s successes for those who love it is sincere. But I thought I couldn’t leave it there, and I hope the criticisms I did voice were at least reasonably spoken and fair.

  3. Paul Hamann says:

    Perhaps a better measure of “quality poetry” could be the top 20 American Poetry books on Amazon. Tough to determine whether people like this stuff more or less than poetry like your example, but still an interesting exercise. In order:

    Poe
    Gibran
    Poe
    Bukowski
    Bukowski
    Frost
    Susan Pearson
    Oliver
    “Words that Moved a Nation,” ed. Diane Ravitch
    Whitman
    Collins
    Dickinson
    Oliver
    Frost
    Oliver
    Whitman
    “The IImmortal Poets”
    Plath
    Akiane (?)

    And the top 20 for all poetry, not just American adds Shakespeare, Dante, and several anthologies (like “I Wrote This For You”) to the list. Perhaps the anthologies may be fertile ground for determining what people really care for…

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I like this approach, Paul—it focuses on Americans who buy poems to have around the house rather than Americans who decorate their online lives and refridgerator doors with one-off poems from the Web, but that’s an important group to hear from also. Mary Oliver is the one that surprises me here (and Akiane, who is unfamiliar to me also). Anthologies, especially widely purchased titles, are probably a good bet. I never read a Chicken Soup for the Soul back when they were all the rage—I’m assuming they had some poetry in them, and now I wonder what it was like?

      • Paul Hamann says:

        Most Chicken Soup for the Soul poetry that I remember was really, really awful. Perhaps it’s my own almost pathological resistance to the transparently, bludgeony manipulative, but that’s what I recall from it. And it was almost unbelievably popular. I’d have to grab a copy at a used bookstore to confirm, though.

    • jacob p says:

      You know? This is not a bad list. I’m glad Mary Oliver is on there. What do these poets have in common?

      • jwrosenzweig says:

        That’s an excellent question, Jacob, and I’m not sure how to answer it. On the face of them, they really are a variegated group, and I don’t see any obvious commonalities.

        • jacob p. says:

          Let’s examine the ways that they are accessible. That’s the common theme, even though the strategies they take fall into a few categories.

          Also: I’m betting kids poets were excluded from this list.

  4. Eileen Murray says:

    Great piece, and thanks to Paul for directing me to it.

    I grew up in a non-bookish home, and I until I got to high school, the only two books of poetry I owned were “A Book of Treasured Poems” (copyright 1928, twelfth printing 1946, stamped Good Shepherd School, so apparently inadvertently or deliberately retained by my Mom or one of her sisters) and “The Golden Books Family Treasury of Poetry” (copyright 1959). I still have the former, and I was *thrilled* to find a new edition of the latter in Barnes and Noble several years back, since I had been missing it intermittently for years. In fact, when I went to look for it on the bookshelf a few minutes ago, it wasn’t there because it was on the coffee table, since I was reading from it a couple of weeks ago.

    (Fun Facts: Eliot isn’t represented in “Treasured Poems” at all, although it includes Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!”; the “Family Treasury” includes a couple of the “Practical Cats” poems and some accessible pieces from “Leaves of Grass”, and “I Hear America Singing”.)

    Anyway, both of these books were definitely treasured by *me* as I was learning to love the English language — I can’t remember how many of these I had memorized in my sponge-like child-brain — even though they both definitely contain examples of that “greeting card poetry”; one of the great things about maturing as a reader was encountering poets later and feeling familiar with their names and then finding them in one of these books, represented by their (mostly) less challenging work.

    I’m looking at the “Foreward” to the older book — I’m not sure I’d done that before — and I think it speaks a little bit to one of Paul’s points about “judg[ing] poetry more by emotional content than by craft”: “The one quality that is found in every poem and thus unifies the book is that of emotional appeal. Wordsworth defined the essence of real poetry as ’emotion recollected in tranquillity’. To bring pleasure to the reader through the recognition of the familiar and through the surprises of the unfamiliar has been the editor’s constant aim. The distractions of modern life are constantly increasing [!]. It is all the more desirable, therefore, that we turn to a book such as this to regain a feeling for noble expression and exalted moods. The absence of formal notes in this little volume is not the result of inertia or oversight, but of an attempt to restore it to the field of emotion.”

    And one of the parts of your piece that particularly resonated was your comment that “The poem directly addresses an emotion that is easy to relate to…Culturally we sometimes have a hard time expressing why we care about someone, and the advantage of a poem about that exact thing is that it can be used to both express those feelings and distance ourselves from the vulnerability of trying to figure out how to say it ourselves.”

    I’ve never articulated it so well, and it’s not exactly the same things, but it reminds me of a little epiphany I had a few years back: I still go to a lot of loud music shows at clubs and other SRO-type venues, and I used to be kind of amazed at people who would be singing along passionately to *every* song and be totally focused on the band for the whole show. (Not that I don’t do that to *some* songs, or even most of the repertoire of some bands, but I also usually blame it on my “Inner 22-Year-Old” who followed a different life path.) As I critical reader — and, well, person — I was sometimes surprised how these sometimes trite lyrics (even though as Paul suggests, they’re less exposed when they’re wrapped in guitars, drums, etc.) seemed to *resonate* so much with some people.

    And then I realized…well, what you said 🙂

    Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking/trip-down-memory-lane morning (and maybe I *will* see if there are still tickets available to the Pet Shop Boys at House of Blues tonight…)

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks for the comment, Eileen (and welcome to the blog, if you’ve never dropped by before!)—I think steering our attention to the types of treasuries that, at least for some of us, sit or sat on childhood bookshelves is an important perspective too. You’re right that the old “treasuries” did more with the sing-song style I hastily referred to as “greeting card poetry”, but frankly I think they’re a nice entry point into poetry, and it seems you do too. 🙂 Certainly if that’s where folks first encounter Eliot and Whitman, through the lens of Old Possum or O Captain, etc., I think that’s a great way to get into them and the larger world of verse, and I’m pretty sure it’s how I got there. I’d love to believe that parents still put treasuries like that on their kids’ shelves, but part of me fears that poetry just doesn’t get that kind of play these days.

      And your tie between poetry and lyrics is apt—I’ve certainly witnessed the same thing, not just in others but in myself. A line that would fall flat for me on the page becomes really stirring when it’s being sung. I hope the Pet Shop Boys were a fun evening. 🙂

  5. jacob says:

    I read recently that simple orange soda is favored by people who haven’t had a lot of soda and cola is a taste that comes later. Perhaps the same for poetry.

    I think poetry should lead us to think and to feel. There should never be a line that is so obvious that we say, “yes, of course,” as our mind drifts on to other things or we become mildly pleased that our own thoughts have been confirmed.

    What I mean is.

    “A sister is someone who loves you from the heart,
    No matter how much you argue you cannot be drawn apart.”

    “loves you from the heart” – what does that mean to the author? Has she examined the feeling of sisterly love for us? Is she opening it up so we can understand it better? Has she thought about her thought? Does the phrase “from the heart” add anything to our understanding of how a sister loves you? Is the second line an aware defiance of how love can fall apart? Or is it false and unexamined (sisters can be drawn apart).

    Now, if I saw someone read this poem and their body language conveyed that the simple ideas here were self-aware indeed – then I could value it highly. But such complexity – such awareness – isn’t in the text of the poem.

    But try listening to Nina Simone singing “I’m just a soul who’s intentions are good”. A simple song with honesty and complexity. And how wonderful!

    Directness is no problem of course. Bukowski – on the list Paul has kindly offered – is an amazing writer partially because he is direct. And physical. And easy to understand. And haiku are direct and physical as well – and often wonderful. And Gary Snyder. And.

    Poetry should open and open.

    Examine:

    “The flower in the glass peanut bottle formerly in the
    kitchen crooked to take a place in the light,
    the closet door opened, because I used it before, it
    kindly stayed open waiting for me, its owner.”

    These lines opens and open and surprise.

    “The flower in the…
    glass…
    peanut butter bottle…
    formerly…
    in the kitchen…
    crooked…”

    The first two lines surprise five times at least! Our minds don’t have reason to drift. We can ride this poem from detail to detail. We are asked to be engaged, we are not allowed to drift away. We aren’t allowed to stop listening – and we can be assured that the author is giving us something well considered, that he too is listening (remember, the name of the poem is Transcription of Organ Music).

    When I draw a picture from my imagination – not having a lot of artistic experience to pull from – my picture feels like something of an insult to the complexity of the world. When I draw from life, however skewed my picture comes outs, it is never such an insult – and never uninteresting if I might say so. And I might. Have.


    How to improve the culture of poetry? Get people to read more. Get people to talk about what they read more. Talk to them about what they ought to notice. I had a friend Alan in college who pointed out the parts to listen for in his Grateful Dead tapes. A big help indeed!

    Oh, and those of us who write. Perhaps we should consider our own responsibility to make things accessible. If poetry is about communication, how can we better succeed?

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Yes, yes to all of this, really—lots of thoughts that nicely complement, counterpoint, and complexify the things I was thinking (and, hopefully, writing, at least in part). Thanks for this! It has me mulling, especially about how a writer like Bukowski fits into all of this, and also how we can “evangelize” poetry—we get shy about it, I think, or at least I do (outside the blog), but music and movie fans don’t, and we’re much the better for it, as you note. Great stuff.

      • jacob says:

        Of course! Most of what I say here is an extension of something you’ve said in the post or someone has brought up in reply.

        • jwrosenzweig says:

          Ack, I realize now my comment looks really uncharitable—as though I was suggesting you were stealing my ideas! When in fact I meant to say the opposite: that you were clarifying things for me and giving me much better insight into myself, as well as yourself, given how thoughtfully you’d phrased things! Sorry for the unintentionally snarky tone!

        • jacob says:

          You weren’t snarkin at all, buddy.

        • jwrosenzweig says:

          Oh good. 🙂 Tone is so hard to convey—glad I didn’t fumble it!

  6. Paul Hamann says:

    A little bit on lyrics, since both Eileen (here) and my brother (elsewhere) have brought it up. The lyrics I most liked as a high schooler–even the ones that make me cringe now–are so vastly superior to the examples of trite poetry (both your example and mine). I guess I have trouble with the argument of “hey, the crappy drunk-driver poem isn’t that big a deal–when I was young, I thought Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ was deep!” Now, I’m far from a fan of those lyrics. And yet they–and the lyrics to just about any song on the radio that took itself seriously (or even too seriously) blow trite internet poetry out of the water. It’s overwrought and self-indulgent just like adolescence is, sure. But it’s not so flippin’ bald-faced manipulative. It doesn’t have stupid rhymes that contort meaning. It at least has an effort at multi-leveled thinking. If that’s popular, I can live with that.

    Additionally, upon reflection, I do wonder whether the amazon.com poetry list matters here. This is a hunch, but I’d bet a sawbuck on it: I think the people who read poetry on “family friend poems” do not actually buy poetry books by anyone alive in the last 100 years. Why is that? I think it has something to do between the gulf of quality between this stuff and “the best” that you elucidate. It’s a lot easier to get from Justin Bieber to Mozart, or from Will Ferrell to Orson Welles, than it is to get from these poets to Auden or Oliver. And for many people, it’s not really worth the trip.

  7. Aron says:

    Hi, the creator of Family Friend Poems here. As someone who has never had much interest in reading poetry, I appreciate the discussion above very much. It was very insightful and you nailed it. You described our audience perfectly.

    My website is about emotion and healing through short stories written in the guise of poetry. We are a place to go for advice, validation and comfort regarding feelings about family, friendship, death, love and life issues. I wish I could do more to use my website to promote better poetry. However, that’s not what my visitors want. We give them what they want to read and Google rewards us by sending us visitors by the stadium-full. I don’t think our visitors will ever enjoy “true poetry”. It’s not the beginning of a journey to better poetry. It’s exactly where they want to be.

    Regardless, I’d love to hear ideas on how to let visitors know that what they are reading is at best “greeting card poetry” and that there is a whole larger world of deeper True Poetry out there for them to explore.

    Here is an interesting page on why people are reading poetry:
    http://www.familyfriendpoems.com/why_read_poetry.asp

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Aron—first of all, thank you for being so incredibly gracious in commenting here! I did my best to avoid being incendiary, but I still said some critical things that I think a lot of website creators would have reacted to much less positively: I really appreciate your approach. I don’t know what ideas I have for you, in part because it may be that poetry is already meeting the needs your site’s visitors are asking it to accomplish. Someone who wants a sweet poem about a mother’s love may not particularly want to be challenged by Philip Larkin’s ideas about parenting (or, less aggressive but still edgy enough, someone like Robert Frost, whose poems about family and childhood are definitely not very cheery).

      That said, it’s hard for me to know what the right attitude to strike here is. If I say what I’m thinking, which is something like “the great poets move me more than the sentimental rhyming couplets do, because they open me up to a much wider range of emotions and comfort me more deeply, but I don’t know that most people will get that from them”, am I being condescending, assuming that what’s good for me and other folks who read “tough poems” is too rich a fare for everyone else? Or am I being fair, accepting that not everyone goes to poetry looking for the same thing or needing the same solace? The page you linked to is very moving, honestly—in among the “I’m here for school” comments are so many people who need what your site is giving them as they handle loss, heartbreak, depression, abandonment. I know what it’s like to have those dark nights—we all do, I guess, one way or another. I don’t know that Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “terrible sonnets” (to name one great poet who faces vivid emotions in a way that moves me) would be the right thing to hand those people in their time of need, but I can’t really say why, other than that I know that it takes time and experience to be able to see what a great poet is saying.

      In the end, I think promotion of people reading more poetry is good, and your site does that. I think promotion of the idea that poetry allows us to examine our feelings is good too, and your site does that also. You’re already doing something that promotes people reading better poetry—I feel sure that every day, one or more of your readers decides to go looking for other poems because they’re ready for something new, and your site is part of how they got there. This leaves unanswered the larger question I began with, which is, should we try to encourage that process so that people do read “good poems” sooner, or should we leave it be? I don’t really know the answer. But I don’t think it’s something you’ll need to solve. Thanks so much, again, for your comments! Come back any Friday—there’ll be a poem here to ponder, and maybe one of them (or one of the comments made about them) will strike you in a way that helps you answer the questions you’re posing to yourself. 🙂 Cheers!

  8. jacob p. says:

    Welcome Aron! Thanks for your thoughts. I am curious about so much, but first I am curious about your connection to poetry. I know you said you haven’t been interested in reading poetry, bu obviously you started a poetry website. What was the seed for that? You must have written some of the poetry there, or had some poem that touched you a lot at some point. I headed over to the site after seeing your post here – the curating does seem to be well designed to give the sites visitors what they want. I’ll browse around more over the next few days.

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