Friday, August 12, 2011

I Don't Get Poetry

Because I'm lazy and need to be at work at 5AM tomorrow, I'm going to introduce this blog post with the first paragraphs of a paper I wrote for school.


The New York Times Best Sellers List is the de facto barometer for a writer's mainstream popularity. For those blessed with the proper blend of talent and luck, it's the achievement of most every writer's dream, to support oneself with one's own writing. Considering how many published authors exist in obscurity, such public reception is as improbable as salmon fry reaching maturity.

Originally, the Best Sellers List divided books into only two categories: fiction and non-fiction. The non-fiction category was broadened with "Advice, How-to, and Miscellaneous," to differentiate the Dummies guide series from biographies. During the height of Potter-mania, fiction authors so feared J.K. Rowling sweeping all the top spots, that a category "Children's Books" was added to allow adult fiction writers to avoid competition with her. More recently, "Paperback Fiction" has been further bifurcated into "Trade" and "Mass Market" categories; an attempt to recognize the efforts of literary-minded writers in a genre dominated world[1].

Despite these changes to accommodate a broader spectrum of writing, it probably surprises no one that the New York Times hasn't added a category for poetry. Though it predates all other forms of literature and continues to be written in all languages and in innumerable forms, poetry simply doesn't sell and there is no mass market appeal for it in the United States.

Reading, however, has grown in popularity as evidenced by online book sales and the blockbuster status attained by popular fiction series such as the aforementioned Harry Potter and Twilight. While an average American may take one of these novels on vacation to read at the beach, poetry seems completely unapproachable to the lay person. The standard explanation for not reading poetry is "I don't understand it."

[1] New York Times Best Seller List,


First off, don't even say it. I know it's fucking weak to use Wikipedia as your first reference in a paper. It's like starting an essay with the first sentence "Webster's Dictionary defines [blank] as..."

But, anyway, 2 years after writing that paper, poetry sales are still anemic. And I still hear people say "I don't like poetry" or "I don't get poetry." Realize, the people who tell me they don't like reading poetry are not illiterate by any means. They gobble up novels, short stories, memoirs, essays, graphic novels, investigative journalism, blogs (just not mine) and anything that Oprah recommends. So why is the oldest form of writing relegated to high school text books?

For me, saying you don't like poetry is like saying you don't like TV or movies. You're telling me there's not a single TV show you like including premium cable and pay per view? Shall I introduce you to Skinemax?

If you've attained a reading proficiency that allows you to read words without having to sound each one out (and chances are you have if you're reading this blog because I often use three syllable words like Skinemax), then you're capable of reading a poem.

I had originally intended this blog post to be part of an ongoing series that would address various reasons people claim they don't like poetry. I'd pose a common anti-poetry excuse and try my best to refute it. However, thinking about it, I really only came up with two common reasons I've heard people say they were against poetry; and two hardly makes a series. So rather, I'll address these complaints in a couple future blog posts, and would love to hear other reasons why people don't want to read poetry.

Here are two common reasons I've heard:

1) The "I don't 'get' poetry" Excuse.
2) The Modern Art Excuse (i.e. just as people feel like modern art is a scam because they assume the artist is purposely trying to be odd or different in order to be famous, there's a common sentiment that says poets are "duping" readers by coming up with random words strung together that are supposed to be "deep.")

There's no way I'm gonna make people start loving poetry just by logically pointing out why it would make sense to like it, but I think I can make a reasonable argument as to why those arguments against poetry don't always make sense.

Rather than address those two points today though (because as I started writing this post, I realized I wasn't really answering either of those complaints), I'd rather just point out why it's reasonable to think people should like poetry, a la St. Augustine pointing out reasons why God should exist. What follows is completely non-scientific and non-researched:

Most people who don't like poetry also people who simultaneously love music. And I dare conjecture that most of the music they listen to is not instrumentals. Go on, name 10 instrumentals right now that were hits in this century. No, neither "Walk Don't Run" nor "Theme From Hillstreet Blues" were recorded in the 21st century.

I'm gonna go one further. These people who don't like poetry, but like music, not only prefer music with WORDS but music with words in a language they can understand. No, your Ricky Martin album does not count as international music. You obviously can translate the phrase "vida loca."

And to beat this point to death, ask people to name musicians in popular bands. In your average rock and roll band, they'll most easily be able to name the lead singer, followed by the lead guitarist, followed by the bassist, followed by the drummer. The exception of course is when the bassist is the lead singer as well, or the drummer is the lead singer (Phil Collins, David Grohl... sorta). There's a reason the front man is the most recognizable member of a band. Most of us are not expert musicians, but all of us understand language. So it's much easier to connect to words rather than to chords and drum fills.

All this to say that people who listen to music aren't just listening to sounds or melodies. Words matter, unlike Homer's assertion in this classic Simpsons episode. Just imagine your favorite lyrics of all time and replace them with other words.

"I've shitted on an orange cow
and on the seat of the farmer's plow
but now I've only got one call,
the cops are tazering my balls."
-Joni Mitchell

Also imagine all the times you were listening to a song, thought, "This is okay," then realized it was Christian Rock and immediately changed the station. Also, completely unrelated, you might be wondering why I would use a Joni Mitchell quote yet imbed it with a Judy Collins version of the song. That's because the latter is the version I'm more familiar with.

Back on track: Lyrics matter to a lot of songs, to the point where people sometimes carry these lyrics as mantras for the way they should live their lives or to give them courage during hard times. So if you think of your favorite songs, what do they do? Create an emotional reaction? Offer wisdom? Inspire? A singer is accomplishing this connection with the listener through words, performance, melody, tempo and other things I'm not even aware of because I'm not a musician. But a poet doesn't have all those tools at his disposal. It's stripped down. All he has is the words. Remember how popular MTV Unplugged was for a while? People loved it because they were awed realizing the music they loved could be just as (or sometimes even more) effective without the amps and effects. The music was simplified and somehow even more meaningful and expressive in such a bare form. Nirvana's set still gives me shivers. Moreover, when a singer performs a capella, there's this sense that we're enjoying the purist form of the song. There's no where to hide for this artist, no auto tune, no distortion.

Similarly then, a poem ups the ante for this purity of communication. If we're talking about a poem on paper, now even the performance is removed. It's simply these words that have to mean everything the poet wants them to mean without the help of a melody to instruct you how to feel with its minor chords, or even without the help of the poet's own voice teaching you the inflection and pauses of the piece.

So if lyrics have ever touched you, then it's reasonable to believe that a line of a poem could touch you too. You may not have found that poem yet, but with so many out there from so many centuries, it's bound to exist and I'll be excited for you to find it just as I was excited for you when you first discovered Skinemax after bitching about how much you hated all TV ever created.

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