new york times

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Why Poetry? Better Still: Why Not?

While the sale of poetry books continues to languish and the number of readers who love reading (asterisk: only not poetry books) continues to skyrocket, there’s still a healthy cottage industry in writing not poetry but ABOUT poetry. Specifically its death. Or long-term prognosis. Or philosophical place in the world (hint: look low).

Among that burgeoning genre, we can add Daniel Halpern’s New York Times column, “A Few Questions for Poetry,” wherein he puts poor poetry in the defendant’s box and grills it much like sourdough bread and cheese (mmm, can we add a slice of pickle?).

The column includes poets attempting to answer “Why poetry?” also known as the mystery of life. “Now pinch hitting for poetry, which ironically cannot speak for itself, number 12, Louise Glück!” Cheer from the crowd. All nineteen of it.

Louise finds consolation in this philosophy: No one buys poetry books much, but at least, when they do, they tend to keep them much longer than, say, a Scott Turow best seller. Feeling better, everyone?

Richard Ford, who is not a poet but somehow crashes the gates here, probably because he responded to Halpern’s query, which 32 otherwise occupied poets did not, overthinks things and claims “Why poetry?” is a bad question. To prove it, he comes up with a much better (just ask him) one: “What is the nature of experience, and especially the experience of using language, that calls poetic utterance into existence? What is there about experience that’s unutterable?”

Huh? Think I’ll write a poem rather than figure that one out.

In a rather lazy gesture, Halpern then gives us an Emily Dickinson response (and I’m almost sure this isn’t cut and paste from an e-mail). You know. The famous one about knowing it’s poetry when you feel like the top of your head has been taken off. To which I would ask the Amherst eccentric: How does anyone know what THAT feels like? And wouldn’t it make you feel more like Frankenstein’s monster than a reader in a state of poetic euphoria (and I don’t mean New Jersey)?

The most prosaic response comes from our Hartford insurance salesman by day, poet by night (uniform in the actuarial tables file cabinet), Wallace Stevens: “…to help people live their lives.”

Only I ask you: Have you ever read a Wallace Stevens poem and felt like it helped you to live your life? I mean, now that I’ve read “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” I can get on with my day, knowing exactly what to do if I find the night help or a co-worker has stolen Christmas candy from my desk drawer again?

Which brings us to this question: “Why columns about why poetry?”

Oh, yeah. Because they sell and some people even read them. Unlike poetry.

The Seven Best Poetry Books of 2021… Maybe

T’is the season for “Best of” lists, and yes, even poetry gets in on the game, at least if the playing field is as large as The New York Times, where the Book Review’s poetry columnist Elisa Gabbert selected seven favorites from 2021 only to be pounced on by readers.

One named “to each their own taste” commented “The NY Times carries great authority, yet this list is so arbitrary and slants so steeply toward poets who are not widely known. How can any round up being called the year’s ‘best poetry books’ not include even Kaveh Akbar’s “Pilgrim Bell,” let alone the Louise Glück book seemingly ignored exactly because it’s by a Nobel poet. Does being better-known disqualify?”

I couldn’t disagree more. I mean, I get it. Having read both Nobel winner Louise Glück’s wonderful Winter Recipes from the Collective and Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell: Poems, I can understand why they might merit consideration for a “Best of” list. But really, do Nobel winners and familiar names like theirs even need the attention? And isn’t that a little too easy for an expert like Elisa Gabbert?

Unlike “to each their own taste,” I favor slants “toward poets who are not widely known.” In fact, I think The Times’ Gabbert could slant even more. Two of her seven selections were choices of a Brooklyn bookstore’s poetry subscription series – one I myself receive. And while I’m in the confession box, I’ll state here that one of those two choices struck me as ordinary while the other I abandoned (though now I may give it a second go, to see if it’s me or Gabbert). In any event, keep slanting, Elisa! Make the widely unknown a little bit more known and trust that the famous can fend for themselves!

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SHORT TAKES

I’ve been reading Michael Ignatieff’s short essays, On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times, and so far have most enjoyed the pieces on Marcus Aurelius and Michel De Montaigne. Poor Marcus Aurelius. Like Bartleby the Emperor, he would “prefer not to” do anything Roman emperors had to do – rule, lead battalions against barbarians, entertain fools. Yet he slogged on, writing his Meditations to reprove himself (for lack of Stoic discipline) as much as others.

Montaigne, though he lived in the 16th century, struggled with the party (read: religious) line on consolation. He was too busy writing essays about himself as a human mind and a human body. How 21st century of him!

“I renounce any favorable testimonials that anyone may want to give me not because I shall deserve them but because I shall be dead,” he said, neglecting that little business of an after-life. As he lived in a time of Catholic vs. Protestant bloodshed in France, one can see why he loathed religious zealots.

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Care to sample a few poems from my book online? In the Miracle Monocle out of the University of Louisville, you’ll find “A Boy, A City” (originally written as an ekphrastic poem to go with a photograph) and “Loyalty,” one of my favorite short poems in the book.

You can also find one of the “lost brother” thematic poems, “My Brother’s Bedroom,” in Jacar Press’s poetry publication, one, Issue 21.

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Speaking of Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, my thanks go out to Steve Penkevich from Reader’s World Bookstore in Michigan, who published this awesome-isn’t-the-word-for-it review of my book on Goodreads.

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Am I the only one who thinks the scariest bit in the news these days is the slow taking down of our Republic? In this sense, the good news of Donald Trump’s defeat may turn out to be the bad news. If not for his legitimate defeat in the 2020 presidential election, none of this perfidy would have been turned loose.

Ever child-like and narcissistic, Trump denied losing and insisted it could only happen if he was “robbed.” His slavish minions in countless key states with Republican majorities in their houses and senates have taken this lie as an excuse to blatantly gerrymander voting districts so the GOP can’t possibly lose future elections.

Couple that with voter-suppression laws designed to favor voters registered with the GOP and the purging of any election official (Republicans as well) who had the integrity to stand up to Trump’s lies, and you get a recipe for one-party rule, much like you see in, say, Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China today. Elections may occur in those countries, but they are little more than bad jokes with outcomes a preordained given. Is that what we want for the formerly United States? To see Trump succeed where Jefferson Davis failed?

I’m not sure why Republicans and Democrats alike in states like Arizona, Texas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina are not up in arms over this breach of citizens’ rights. Why are they OK with some American voters counting more than others? Is it patriotic to acquiesce to electoral systems used in Fascist and Communist (small difference, as both are built around cults of personality in a single leader… sound familiar?) countries today? I’m looking for ways to fight back, but it’s difficult when you don’t live in one of the states that are betraying basic precepts of the Constitution, all while cloaked in a false flag of patriotism.

 

Redefine, Sense, Identify, Write

silence

As a teacher, I often made use of the brief riches to be found in two sources: poems and short documentary films. Preview, prepare writing or discussion (or both) prompts, show, and turn it over to students.

For me, The New York Times’ “Film Club” series was an indispensable source of watch-and-write material. Most often the “write” was a Film Club Journal entry, but other times it was the gateway for an essay or poem or opinion piece.

As an example, consider the possibilities in the 7-minute documentary film called “Sanctuaries of Silence.” It tells the story of Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist (of all things) who goes out with sensitive listening devices and records the sounds of silence.

But hold on there. Let’s redefine first, an always fruitful assignment for students. Don’t let them assume or forever fall back on denotations. For creative purposes, pick an intriguing word and have them redefine.

Hempton redefines silence as the absence of human-made sounds. For him, sounds of the natural world alone don’t count as “noise.” No, noise pollution—that is, the product of the human race—rates as true “noise,” and it’s harder and harder to escape from it (think of planes passing overhead, even in the most remote of locations).

For student writers, going outside and putting their senses on high alert is good practice, whether it is a man-made setting or a natural one. In this case, it is sounds they would focus on and record in notebooks, but certainly it could be sights, smells, tastes, and sensations of touch as well.

Identify? What’s making that sound? If you think the exact source and its name is easy, just try identifying it. Hunting down the source of a noise is not always easy. Even crickets can grow shy when you get close enough, and does your average writer know the difference between a cicada and a katydid, a wood thrush and a yellow warbler? How about an urban setting? Manmade objects have specific names, too.

There’s an exact word for everything, all right, and specific nouns, along with active verbs, are the muscle and bone of good writing, no matter what the genre.

Starting with film or poem or both always makes for excellent writing kindling. Students love them, too, and they don’t eat up a lot of class time, so there’s a lot of educational bang for your instructional buck.

Not a teacher? Be an autodidact. Put that notebook to good use. Redefine, sense, identify, and write!