National Poetry Month 2021 Edition

“Truth is like poetry…and most people fucking hate poetry.”

–Overheard in a Washington, D.C. bar


The above quote was the tagline of a meme I saw online and it made me laugh. It has also been said that “even poets hate poetry”. I don’t know who said either of these things, but they make a point. Like Captain America exclaiming “Language!” to admonish a team mate’s choice of words, we are all always editing what we are hearing or reading. We might fixate on a word or turn of phrase that is problematic for us and miss a point that we might not grasp at first glance, but might come to better understand later if we reread the piece, or talk about that topic again.

These statements can’t be literally true, of course. Take song lyrics for example. Songs are simplified poems, and vocal music is hugely popular and influential in every culture. Songs that resonate with people express things that many of us can relate to. So while poetry as a genre in publishing these days may be a niche market, it is still poetic language that drives a lot of what defines our popular culture. Everything from songs by our favorite musicians, the jingles that are still apparently a thing in advertising, great dialogue in movies and television, rhetoric in speeches that are aimed for mass appeal, they all take something from poets. Rhymes, alliteration, similes, the mechanics of the language in these compositions or productions are poetic.

It is interesting that there is this sort of dichotomy, we rarely see a book of poetry on the best seller list among other works, but it does influence so many things. A few years ago I read about a self published volume of poetry entitled “The Princess Saves Herself in This One” and how it had then gone on to be published by Andrews Mcmeel publishing and placed in bookstores. I bought a copy at a Barnes and Noble when I saw it and enjoyed much of it. Those poems were about resilience among other things, and the author clearly worked through some traumas to compose her work. I’ve read glowing reviews and criticisms that completely dismiss that book as bad poetry. The thing is though, it resonated with a lot of people.

What else is there? I can agree with some critiques of a lot of the poetry that I see posted online (and printed in some journals), but I’m also a big fan of e.e. cummings, whose free form shenanigans are well known. Ultimately, all poems are just words on a page. Sometimes I’m just playing with words. I doubt I’m alone in that. But whether it is just wordplay that gives the spark to an idea, or if it is a much more personal experience that the poet is trying to relate, they are still just thoughts put into whatever form seemed most evocative at the time. Dreams given form, as another saying goes.

That includes experimental forms, in my opinion. In some of my e.e. cummings inspired poems, I’ve tried all kinds of things that are way outside the bounds of traditional rhyme schemes. Some have featured backwards text, words spaced out all down a page, some verses left aligned, some right, some centered, some very much not-even-verses, etc. But even in those cases, the idea was the thing. In those cases, what I wanted to do was experiment with the form as much as I wanted to get whatever idea I had across. In some other cases, form brings out better word choices, more interesting detours that you may wind up taking to express the idea in the more fixed format of some rhyme schemes.

As my other favorite poet once said:

“I’ve always been interested in form, maybe because I don’t trust my own spontaneous nature to come up with anything interesting, and form imposes a certain opportunity to get deeper than your first thought. There’s a school of poetry that believes first thought, best thought. That would have condemned me to an inauspicious superficiality if I had followed that, because I don’t have any ideas. Irving Layton once said to me, ‘Leonard is free from ideas.’ I don’t have an idea and I don’t trust my opinions. I think my opinions are second-rate, but when you submit yourself to a form, then something happens and you’re invited to dig deeper into the language and to discard the slogans by which you live, the easy alibis of language and of opinion. And if you’re looking in the Spenserian stanza, for instance—which is a very, very intricate verse form—you have to come up with many rhymes of the same sound; you’re invited to explore realms that you usually don’t get to in ordinary, easy thought. I’ve considered my thought stream extremely uninteresting, and it’s only when I can discard it that I find I can say something that I can get behind.”
–Leonard Cohen

So, either way can lead to magic. Some ideas just catch fire and become something interesting in a flash, some we have to struggle with over and over for many days/weeks/months/years. …decades. However long it takes. Sometimes I’ll borrow a conjoined word from you know who, sometimes I’ll make up my own word. Other occasions may find me on Rhymezone at 2 A.M. while also flipping through an actual thesaurus to find just the right word for one line. You never know. But the idea is the thing.

I mentioned a few of the poets I was reading last year at this time, so I’ll do so again. Be sure to look into some of their work during this years National Poetry Month: Fatimah Asghar, Andrei Codrescu, Billy Collins, Ilya Kaminsky, Amanda Lovelace, Eva Xanthopoulos, Erin Belieu, Sandra Hochman. Also be sure to listen to some songs by Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot and Bob Dylan.