Tell students in a high school literature class that it’s time to read some poetry, and you might as well tell them that it’s time to read Shakespeare in Mandarin Chinese. “People still read poetry?” their eyes say. Tell adults you are reading poetry, and they will label you eccentric or gay, and often both.
In my own case, it’s just eccentric.
What is really funny about the dislike for poetry on the part of so many people — that this dislike is real can easily be ascertained by how little poetry is read — is that so many of us listen to poetry off and on all day and all night. Songs — ranging from rap to opera — are poems. They can be written in closed form, meaning they have meter and rhyme and so on, or they can be delivered in open form, or free verse. Few of us stop to think that the song we are listening to is really a sung poem, but there it is.
Yet how many Americans actually read and enjoy poetry? I’m guessing that the number would just about match those who cheer at curling tournaments. In fact, it’s a safe bet that far more people are writing poetry than reading it.
The causes for the declining health of the queen of literature are numerous. Because of the mass media, songs have replaced poems, the usual case of art following money. Twentieth century poets who began directing their verse toward the literati left the rest of us — the unwashed — outside the castle gates. Educational institutions don’t require students to memorize or study much poetry anymore. Finally, a great number of the poems written today frankly have all the perfume of a fish dead and in the sun for three days
Yet even dead fish — make that dead oysters — can offer up pearls of great price. Take, for instance, Sophie Cabot Black’s The Exchange (Graywolf Press, ISBN 978-1-55597-641-5, $15). Centered around the fatal illness of a close friend, these poems should attract readers for their clarity, the stark beauty of Black’s austere language, and the power of certain lines to jolt our hearts, which is, after all, what poetry of this sort is supposed to do. Typical of her poems here is “When It Comes:”
I want to be whom you close
Your eyes on, remembered into whatever
Last you think. And the stone, left,
Still there upon return. You asked me to stay
Awake and so I sit until one by one the birds
Come back, the child gone to the bus. With time
She will simply be us; the hardest part
How it does not matter. She too will carry
A box to the fresh place, sudden and uncovered
To reveal more dire while she watches
The ground take into its arms what she thought
She knew. Whoever remains gets to tell the story
Until it is true. Do not close your eyes, spare me
Not one thing.
In Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems (Random House, ISBN 978-0-679-64405-7, $26), Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States, has assembled poems ranging in variety from critical satire to traditional themes of love and death. Many of Collins’s poems have a playful quality, a sort of gleam in the poet’s eye as he takes on his audience. Here is one of his humorous pieces. (Read the title carefully and then imagine three or four teenage girls together):
Oh My God!
Not only in church
and nightly by their bedsides
do young girls pray these days.
Wherever they go,
prayer is woven into their talk
like a bright thread of awe.
Even at the pedestrian mall
outbursts of praise
spring unbidden from these glossy lips.
David Rokoff’s Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel (ISBN 978-0-385-5321-2, $26.95) caught my eye because of the unusual title and cover, and the illustrations inside the book. Rokoff writes this novel, with variations on the meter, in heroic couplets, telling the story of different American characters and immigrants, showing the brutality of life while insisting, as the back cover reads, “on beauty and the necessity of kindness. Often his approach works well and with great humor:
Susan had never donned so bourgeois
A garment as Thursday night’s Christian Lacroix.
In college — just five years gone — she’d have abhorred it
But now, being honest, she f**king adored it.
To be frank, reading 112 pages of this sort of verse can be a strain — and the verse itself is sometimes strained.
Did it work? I’m not sure.
But was it fun? Most definitely.
And Rokoff was a brave soul simply to attempt his poetic novel. So a restrained kudos here as well.