The last thing any aspiring poet wants is corny. You know, where readers look at your poem and say, “Seriously? This is (fill in the blank) cornball, schmaltzy, over-the-top, stereotype-bad!” This is especially dangerous in contemporary poetry. In olden times corny was not only forgiven, it was expected–a hallmark of the times, even.
What constitutes corny? Too much to chronicle, but if a rose is red (don’t say!) and a violet is blue (really?), look out! Also suspect are certain poetic expressions, such as “yonder” and “o’er” and “Oh!” (or the more flamboyant still “O!”)
No. Never. Don’t go there. And yet…and yet…sometimes a contemporary poet not only goes there but sends postcards saying the weather is fine!
The secret is not one I can give you, beyond this: If you’re going to attempt a word or expression that might be cornier than a field in Iowa, play it straight and keep a poker face until the very last moment. Like exclamation points and adjectives and salt, corn must be used sparingly.
The payoff? Big. Yes, sometimes, against all odds, “corn” can reward the daring among us. Even in the year 2017. Even in these cynical, world-weary times. For proof, I offer you a poem I came across and loved while reading an August Kleinzahler collection this week:
Loneliness–huge, suddenly menacing
and no one is left here who knows me anymore:
the Little League coach,
his TV repair truck and stinking cigars
and Saul the Butcherman
and the broken arm that fell out of the apple tree,
dead or gone south to die warm.
The little boy with mittens and dog
posing on the stoop–
he isn’t me;
and the young couple in polo shirts, ready to pop
with their firstborn
four pages on in shirtshorts and beatnik top
showing her figure off at 16…
1955 is in an attic bookcast
spine cracked and pages falling out.
Willow and plum tree
green pods from maple whirling down to the sidewalk…
Only the guy at the hot dog stand since when
maybe remembers me,
or at least looks twice.
But the smushfaced bus from New York, dropping
them off at night along
these avenues of brick, somber as the dead child
and crimes of old mayors
lets off no one I know, or want to.
Warm grass and dragonflies–
O, my heart.
Whoa! Did you see what I saw? Here Kleinzahler has us with a garden-variety (albeit it nicely done) memory lane poem when–WHAM–he goes all Walt Whitman on us and drops a should-be corny “O.”
Trouble is, it’s NOT corny in this poem. It’s effective, especially paired off with the everyday ordinariness of warm grass and dragonflies. Maybe that’s part of the secret: two parts everyday with one part corn. That and being an experienced poet. (Can’t you just hear it? “Beginners should not try this at home. These are professional poets driving on a closed course.”)
The moral of this post? Don’t close yourself off. Don’t accept blanket rules such as “Thou shalt not sow, reap, and write corn.” It may just be the captain, your captain your poem needs. What’s more, if you pull it off as Kleinzahler does, you just might be closer to an “experienced poet” than anyone let on. Congratulations!