by Savannah J. Foley
Don’t leave! A lot of writers I know neither like nor respect poetry, but that’s like disliking playwrights, songwriters, short story writers, or the inventors of slogans. All of these people are writers, just the same as novelists, and today I’m going to show you why poetry kicks ass.
You don’t have to like it when I’m done, but you will respect it.
Poetry is the half-way point between prose and music. Even non-rhyming poetry is lyrical; music can be found behind the natural pattern of the words involved. Poetry is also a paradox: it transmits ideas without the plod of prose, and loops through our minds without the steady beat of music. A good poem will stick with you because it exposes you to an emotional message relevant to you personally, or manages to say something that clicks true in your mind, that makes you think ‘yes, this is it exactly.’ To quote John Updike, “I want to write books that unlock the traffic jam in everybody’s head.”
Contrary to popular belief, poetry isn’t here to make you feel stupid, to bore you, or to make you analyze the impact of social issues from three hundred years ago. Good poetry is relevant to your daily life, and will make you feel connected to the author/topic.
I love how poetry can personify concepts and then confront them. I also love its brevity; you can approach any topic and make a statement without having to turn it into an 80,000 word novel.
Let’s begin at the beginning, with Introduction to Poetry, by one of my favorite poets, former Poet Laureate of the United States, Billy Collins:
Introduction to Poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Billy’s poem explains exactly what you should NOT do with poetry: brutally dissect it for meaning. Poems are for enjoying, not for analyzing. Let’s look at a few more examples to please your mind:
The following is an excerpt from Governors on Sominex by David Berman, and shows you how poetry can give you pleasure merely by introducing you into a concept or idea you hadn’t thought of before:
Governors on Sominex
It had been four days of no weather
as if nature had conceded its genius to the indoors.
They’d closed down the Bureau of Sad Endings
and my wife sat on the couch and read the paper out loud.
The evening edition carried the magic death of a child
backlit by a construction site sunrise on its front page.
I remember reading that for the first time and considering the strange idea of reading a newspaper article about a child’s death, while the thin paper showed a sunrise from the other side.
Poems can also tickle your brain. Consider the following excerpt from ‘Player Piano’ by John Updike:
My stick fingers click with a snicker
And, chuckling, they knuckle the keys;
Light-footed, my steel feelers flicker
And pluck from these keys melodies.
Poetry can also introduce a pleasing concept. I like how the following poem gets in, makes its point, then gets out:
by Carl Sandburg
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
Here are some other bits that have stuck with me over the years, that ‘dangle from me like a locket’ (Marginalia by Billy Collins):
‘His death now had an entrance and an exit.’
(The Wires of the Night by Billy Collins)
‘Even the conscience awakens
and roams from room to room in the dark
darting away from every mirror like a strange fish.’
(The Night House by Billy Collins)
‘Rooms, which were people.’
‘Atoms or systems into ruin hurled
and now a bubble burst,
and now a world.’
(Essay on Man by Alexander Pope)
(Spring by e.e. cummings)
And finally, what kind of poetry ambassador would I be if I didn’t share my own work?
The Urban Sprawl of Love
Where do you go when you wander away?
I get tangled in love like affairs of the young:
a habit of no escape,
our lives like hardening cement on a changing floor,
and we all lose some skin when we finally leave.
How can I believe what you don’t want to say?
I’m a sinner with palms that cup the tiny darkness,
with schizophrenic eyes hoping for shadows
playing quietly in the corner:
A long-term plan and some pretty words
are the only things I have going for me.
This is the urban sprawl of love.
Our heroes slouch towards Bethlehem,
while grace comes with a side of fries,
and no clean sanctuaries are budding up
against the corners of strip malls,
like climbing roses blooming in city grit;
I am not the sharp, broken poetry of the Big Bad,
or the lovely arias of a luscious country town,
but a sell-out mediocrity with retention ponds
and new generations that vow to get out.
I would escape, but the sprawl is in me;
the languid spread of small, cheap wonders:
a plastic place where no one lives.
I could never hope to make you stay-
this is all I’ll ever have to give.
Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Antebellum (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress. She has written five novels, owns her own freelance writing company, and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency. Antebellum is currently out on submissions. Her website is www.savannahjfoley.com, but she updates more frequently on her livejournal.