Why do so many avid readers not read poetry? Why is there such resistance to its inherent challenges? Rattle editor Tim Green, in his interview with the poet Kwame Dawes, opines that people who don’t ordinarily read poetry are put off by its difficulty. In a lengthy response, some of which I’ll quote here, Dawes takes a different trajectory on the question of difficulty:
“I disagree with that vehemently, I think. I’ll tell you why. I think there are reasons why people may resist poetry, and it has less to do with it being transformative and has to do with practical things like language. Things that we think are okay—for instance the simile. The simile is a contract. It’s the similitudes. So when we think of a book like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes, those are similitudes: ‘This is like that. Those are like that.’ The safe and normal functioning of similitudes requires a contract between speaker and hearer; it’s a way to say the thing that cannot be said of itself using the knowledge that we have of the world.
“So if I come and I say, ‘What is this?’ [holds up hat] ‘What color is this? Describe this.’ What do you do? So if somebody can’t see it, then you say, ‘Black.’ That means we’ve coded into our culture a relationship between something that looks like this and the word ‘black.’ But if you say you can’t use the world ‘black,’ inevitably the only way you can get there is through the simile, and beyond that the concretizing of the simile becomes the metaphor. But the point I’m making is that it is part of language, and language is about finding the words within our pool of understanding to help articulate the thing that seems difficult to articulate. This is the deal. It is a contract, or what we often call a convention.
“The poet masters that capacity over time, but there’s a logic to it. What has happened often in periods of poetic change and innovation is boredom with the order, and therefore an effort to unsettle things even more, by creating things that, frankly, don’t make sense. I don’t call that heightened poetry, I just call that a time when people are bored and they do this kind of thing. Boredom and disruption are healthy, but not necessarily holy or brilliant. They are healthy because they disrupt the cliché, which amounts to a certain kind of presumption of meaning around what can be closed societies, closed cliques, closed sites of resistance, can lead to fresher engagements with the world and can force us to see our biases and our prejudices. This is not comfortable. But these disruptions, I must add, are best when they are predicated on some kind of principle. At least that is what they are for me. But too often in poetry, these disruptions quickly become closed systems that can be as oppressive and as lazy at the thing they claim to be disrupting. Because here’s the thing—you’re disrupting an existing line. You’re not making up anything; you’re just disrupting it by throwing it into relief. And this is great, and exciting, but you’re not that smart. I can make a poem crazy, because, if I’m walking along here, I can just choose not to walk along here. If I say, ‘This is like a crow [raising the black baseball cap]. It’s the color of a crow,’ we say, ‘Okay, a crow is black, and this is black.’ If I say, ‘This [raising the black baseball cap again] is the color of a seagull,’ you go, ‘Oh, that’s weird,’ but that’s not profound. I’m fascinated by disrupting the mystique that we create around making those choices, because I think they are technical choices.
“I think most people are moved by a fresh way of seeing something, and it does disrupt things. I think Pope is onto something when he says poetry is ‘what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.’ I think that appeals to everybody. That sounds very conservative, but show me otherwise. Bring all your weird stuff and I’ll talk you through it to show you that we’re all still doing the same thing. I don’t know why we think we’re making up new stuff. This poetry thing goes back so far. I think it’s a youthful enthusiasm to think otherwise, but all is vanity and a chasing after the wind. We’re going to be dust again, and if we are lucky, for a period, a memory, and that is it. Perhaps chasing reminds us that we are alive. I suppose that might be part of it. We’re just adding to what has existed before—this is the best we can hope for, and as it happens, it’s a lot. So there is a sense that part of what keeps us going is the idea that we’re retaining our unique DNA, but there is very little new under the sun. So I find a great satisfaction in seeing myself as part of a long tradition and practicing that tradition until I feel I have a mastery of that tradition. And if, in all of this, something new, something that marks me as meaningful, is there, then good. But in the meantime, I’m not inventing anything new in poetry, except in that grand and necessary belief that we are each uniquely formed. Holding onto this faith—even for those who claim faithfulness—may very well be the grand poem that staves off despair. There is a fine line between accepting that we are mere specks in a consuming and overwhelming universe, and our capacity to hold to a sense of our intrinsic value.
“I like to think that poetry rests at that fissure between those two existential extremes. So what Emily Dickinson said, I don’t think she’s saying there’s dissonance…”
Nota Bene: These last words reference Green’s earlier remark: “…poets are drawn toward cognitive dissonance. What poetry does that ‘takes the top of your head off,’ like Dickinson said, is that it reconstructs your worldview in a way that’s really shifting. And I feel like there’s some percentage of the population who loves that feeling, and others who hate it.”
The complete interview can be found in the Fall 2019 issue of Rattle.