Thoughts on Poetry

I extract this comment from a thread on my Poetry at Poetryslamming, not because I want to draw attention to the person who wrote it, but rather because I think that forum is not the place to engage in a debate, at least at this time. The gist of it is that this person thought my Poetry boring – which I thought a valid comment, but wanted clarification, as follows:

Are the poems boring because you are not interested in the subject matter, or because they did not make you interested in the subject matter, or because they simply did not convey their content in a manner that was exciting to you?

Their response was:

Yeah. You got it. Pretty much all three, or some combination thereof. Because it is both short and exemplary of your other two, let’s look at the last poem Rilke.

(Here’s the poem, for reference’s sake):

Rilke

Where did you find the most inspiration,
as each line cut like a diamond-edged drill
through layers of effluvia that still
the seeking heart? Was it your frustration
with a cold and unfeeling world, that sought
to silence any expression of joy
in the blossoming soul of a young boy
whose only sinful act was being caught
worshipping beauty in ordinary
things? Was it a way to battle against
each day’s regimen of daily dross,
the hardness that can infect one’s very
core and so cheapen the experience
of living that its end is no great loss?

10 AUG 2003

They went on to say:

Number one, the language is flat. Chock full of too many large, grand, vague, general, etc. abstractions:
inspiration, layers, effluvia, heart, frustration, world, sought, silence, expression, joy, soul, beauty, things, battle, hardness, infect, experience, living, loss
These words I find especially boring. They are not specific. They are not interesting. I cannot see them. They are cliche.
As for subject matter, it’s very difficult for me to care what a poem is about when the language is this bland and abstract.
To improve your Poetry, I suggest you try to write about these things (loss, experience, beauty, frustration, joy, etc.) without actually referring to them. For example, in the third stanza,
worshipping beauty in ordinary
things
instead of saying “ordinary things”, which is vague and abstract and nearly meaningless, why not list a few actual ordinary things? I.e., what ordinary things did the boy worship? Make a list if you want, and if your list is effective, I as the reader will be able to tell they are indeed ordinary without having you tell me. A mental spark will fizzle in my brain and I will think to myself, “Ah! That boys only sin was worshipping ordinary things! How unjust and fucked up.”
That is, it is much easier for me to be interested in, empathize with, care for, not be bored with, etc. a boy who worshipped the beauty of
two yellow monopoly die,
a red ribbon in that girl’s hair,
the frown of a goose,
and the pitcher of water on the stove about to spill
than a boy who worshipped the beauty of “ordinary things.”
And I’d suggest the same thing for each day’s regimen of daily dross. As in, what is the regimen? What is the daily dross against which he battles? Give me examples.
In general, replace every single abstraction in that centered and italicized list of abstractions with a specific image that conveys the meaning of the abstraction.
Once you do that, I think your Poetry will be much less boring to me, regardless of subject matter.

Now, let me start off by saying that Rilke is not in my opinion a great poem. It has its weaknesses, I’ll admit – the first being that it is an immediate visceral response to having read some Rainer Maria Rilke. But it got me thinking about Poetry in general, and here are my thoughts.

First of all, Poetry to me is, as Francis Bacon described painting, “a distillation of images”. Distillation is the process by which the essence of a thing is extracted from its parts. In that process, the defined form and substance of a thing is eradicated to extract something that is, but is not, a concrete representation of a thing. Think of rose oil, distilled from the petals and other flower parts of a rose. Once you have the oil, the rose itself as a defined, separate thing is no more. What you have left is its “essence”, that suggests the original rose, but in no way actually could be used to identify that particular specimen. That abstraction, if you will, is used to suggest, to provide in memory and by association, a quite different thing than if I were to hand you a rose. To me, that abstraction, the large, grand, the vague and general are absolutely ESSENTIAL to Poetry. If a pure, concrete, absolute description is what you are after, what you have is prose, not Poetry. The point of Poetry, to me, is not to provide absolute images that do not require anything of the reader to interpret. To say that a poem must include, like a grocery list, an itemization of “things that are ordinary” so that the reader can say, oh, yes, those are ordinary things, limits the scope of the poem. After all, the point is not that THESE things are ordinary, but rather that each of us, in our own individual lives, considers a widely varied and perhaps unusual set of things to be ordinary versus magical or special. And the daily dross that each of us encounters, that must be swept away in order to find the kernel of meaning in our own lives? It is as different from person to person as one snowflake from another. To put specific examples into words is to dilute, to weaken, the meaning that is required to be provided by the individual reader. The point is, that words such as “inspiration, layers, effluvia, heart, frustration, world, sought, silence, expression, joy, soul, beauty, things, battle, hardness, infect, experience, living, loss” have must have specific meanings to the reader, that may be completely different from that of the poet – and I’m sure are quite different for me than they were for Rilke, who is after all the subject of the poem. To know Rilke’s history is to have an inkling of what “daily dross” or “ordinary” might have meant to him, but that context is only secondary to the meaning that they have for you, the reader. Who has not found something quite ugly, ordinary, mundane or commonplace that when put into the perspective of a day’s events has become a Grail, of sorts? Even if it is unique and magical for only a moment, it is, like in the Little Prince, no longer just any rose, because it has been named, and it is yours.

The bottom line, I guess, is that for me, if a poem doesn’t keep your interest simply because it doesn’t tell you what to feel, how to interpret, or which square inch of the snapshot to focus on, then it is not the fault of the poem. My interpretation is that Poetry is not supposed to do those things — it is about possibilities, not actualities. It is about our potential, rather than our past. The abstract, rather than the concrete. For Poetry is the basis by which culture is defined, inherited and ultimately evolved and transcended. It deals not so much with how things are, their definition and shape, the rigid lines of meaning that describe the box in which our experience is caged, but rather how to bend the bars, blur those lines, and step beyond.

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