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.
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.