Poetry: A Love Story
I’m going to talk about loving myself. But don’t be scared. I’m not going to hug myself. I am not going to look in the mirror and tell myself I am a beautiful woman. I am definitely not going to take a smaller mirror and look at my vagina, though if you want to give me 50 bucks, I totally will. What I am going to do is discuss loving myself in terms of not loving poetry.
I am a person of extreme likes and dislikes, but the visceral nature of my response to poetry has always surprised even me. Let’s skip over the childhood experiences because there’s not much to say except that, yes, I didn’t even like Shel Silverstein.
Prufrock. The Iliad. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. I don’t care how good it is, I don’t like it. I am sure at some point I wrote a paper about one of these works or similar in which I refused to answer the question and just went off about how much I didn’t like verse. I probably got a B, and I probably complained that I didn’t get an A. About all I can say in my defense is at least this was during the ’80s and ’90s and my parents didn’t complain about it as well.
During my freshman year of college, in the comp class they made us take so we could all soak in the austere joylessness integral to the school’s brand, we read Elizabeth Bishop, and she quickly became my least favorite poet. It seemed appropriate that Bishop should write about Maine, as poetry and Maine were both things I tried to like, felt guilty about not liking, and in the act of trying to like liked even less. Bishop’s fawning treatment of Maine seemed so unnecessary. People already jizz all over Maine, even though it’s cold, covered with rocks, and its only selling point is that it’s a good place to stand shivering while someone prompts you to exclaim, “Gorgeous!” What did Maine need with Bishop further rhapsodizing about its “indifferent sea”? Why did she have to say “shoreward” instead of “toward the shore?” Why “emerald moss” and not just “green moss?” And truly, would there have been any crime in just calling it moss? It’s not as if we didn’t know what color moss was. (I said things like that in class because we were supposed to talk, and in the wake of my comments the room would fall silent, and the professor would say nothing, or just, “No. Anyone else?”) By far, my least favorite part of this particular poem (well, tied with the part where the narrator speaks to the old fisherman about “the decline in fish population” which, I’ll bet, Bishop did not give a shit about) was this: “if you should dip your hand in, your wrist would ache immediately, your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn as if the water were a transmutation of fire.” I remembered that I had once told someone, “The water in Maine is so cold that it almost feels hot,” and it filled me with rage how much better my description was. Transmutation of fire? Ache twice?
My college adviser was also my comp teacher and, believing that a disdain for verse was unacceptable in an English major, prescribed to me in my sophomore year a class devoted entirely to its study. About 50 people took this class with me — Poetry 11 — and as they sat there in what seemed to be rapt attention I spent my time marveling that the room was a perfect temperature. I did this by holding my hand in front of my face and squeezing the air. (It occurs to me now that the very idea you could squeeze air in your hand is made possible by the existence of poetry.)
For our last assignment, we all had to write a 10-page paper about a book by a poet whose name I will leave out because he is not only still alive but not even terribly old. I remember being indignant at what a thin volume it was, and seeing that his life’s work, at middle age, consisted of similarly thin volumes, I thought bitterly to myself, “Well, excuse me, but some of us have to work for a living.” This is hilarious considering at that time I had barely worked an honest day in my life, and, as I eventually became a freelance writer, according to many observers, never would. At any rate, this book was a dreadful bore, utterly impossible to bear alone. My formerly rapt classmates and I read it out loud to each other while howling with laughter, but as the deadline loomed, we quit laughing and began instead to rend our garments. What could we possibly find to say about these poems about nothing? Well, to be fair, the beauty of leaves falling off a tree is something, the smell of bread is something, but it is my feeling that a single sentence is entirely sufficient space in which to praise both; you don’t need an entire poem. To craft even one phrase about this book was a struggle, to dream up an entire idea: a miracle. A fellow classmate became everyone’s hero when she managed to take up two whole pages contemplating the ways that the poet’s work focused on “a departure from a return,” which was, of course, nonsense. Today, almost 25 years after that class, I texted “departure from a return” to another classmate and he wrote back, “lol.”
But I was surprised to discover that my friends had enjoyed other poems we’d read in the class. “Sure, the guy we had to write about was horrible,” they said, “But didn’t you like William Carlos Williams? Or Walt Whitman? Or Emily Dickinson?” But I didn’t like any of it. I could read a poem and think, “Oh, OK, that’s nice.” For example, the idea of those cold plums in the icebox gave me a moment of mild enjoyment, but it didn’t vibrate, it didn’t have the power of the sermon at the beginning of Moby-Dick, or the scene in Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth Bennett essentially tells Lady Catherine De Bourgh to go fuck herself, or, for that matter, every moment of John Water’s autobiography, Shock Value. Poems seem to me almost something, but a something that hasn’t quite arrived, and this is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that movies that are called poetic are almost always boring.
In another class that same semester, I read “The Rape of the Lock” by Alexander Pope. This professor said that this poem was in part about blaming the colonization of India, etc., on women and their desire for nice stuff: “And decks the Goddess with the glitt’ring Spoil/ This Casket India’s glowing Gems unlocks/ And all Arabia breathes from yonder Box.” I thought, OK, now we are getting somewhere. I felt a vibration. But it was the idea that vibrated for me — not the poem itself. I especially disliked its satirical qualities, how delighted it was with its own cleverness without ever prompting anything like a real laugh. It reminded me of a child who hides in the shadows, casting coy looks, daring you to resist its cuteness, while all the while you think, “Really, it’s fine. You can stay there!”
The first poem I ever really liked was Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song.” Having never once been affected in any emotional way by a poem in my life, I was surprised that I burst into tears at the first line: “Love set you going like a fat gold watch.” I think I was reacting to the idea of having had no choice in being born, and then being forced to keep ticking, forever, whether I wanted to or not. Later on in the poem I liked Plath’s use of the phrase “cow-heavy” to describe breasts, which is remarkable considering that these sort of invented compound words (they are called “kennings”) are the part of most poems I like least. But in this case, Plath came up with the absolute best way to describe the way large, braless breasts sway underneath loose clothes, and thus, got what I shall hereafter refer to as a “kenning pass,” though I never plan to issue another. After “Morning Song” I read all of Plath’s poems, and pronounced them all fantastic, and wondered how it had come to be that there was only one good poet in the world.
But then I liked another poem, by another poet. It was “The Yellow Star That Goes With Me,” by Jessica Greenbaum. In it, Greenbaum imagines — oh, wait. This is one of the reasons I hate writing about literature. You have to use terms like, “In this poem Greenbaum imagines” which sounds so horrible, and yet, how else do you say that? — Greenbaum imagines being in a concentration camp, and how there is no way for her to understand the experience except in increments that are nothing like the experience at all. As she puts it, being really freezing cold between the shower and the towel, or riding on a crowded train, are no more like the experience of being in a concentration camp than the expression “dying of thirst” is anything like really dying of thirst. I was so pleased with myself that I finally liked yet another poem, by someone who wasn’t Plath, and I showed it to a friend who writes poems. And she said the poem was OK, but that it was too obvious. I didn’t understand that. Was it really so wrong, when reading a poem, to know exactly where you were, to understand exactly why someone was saying something, what they meant? Were poems only good if they were somehow coy and opaque?
The reason I liked Plath’s poems was because I knew about her life and you never had to wonder what was going on: You read and said to yourself, these are all about a person who wants to die.
Ten years passed and I decided to try another poem. Another Jessica Greenbaum poem. I read “I Had Just Hung Up From Talking To You” and after I finished it, all I could think about were the personal details missing from the poem. Who was this friend of hers? What was wrong with him? I actually googled her (“Jessica Greenbaum divorce,” “Jessica Greenbaum family,” “Jessica Greenbaum estranged”) but there was nothing. I realized then that the reason I liked Plath’s poems was because I knew about her life and you never had to wonder what was going on: You read and said to yourself, these are all about a person who wants to die.
At the end of the poetry class I went to my adviser’s office. During our conversation he stared out the window as if he were considering stepping out of it onto the lawn and just walking away. He asked me how I liked the poetry class. I said that I had no idea what anyone was talking about and generally couldn’t bring myself to care. He asked what I wanted to do with myself after college. I said I wanted to be a writer. He said, “Well, you don’t seem to possess any talent.” I was shocked. I thought surely something special, some charm peeked out from the lines of my unspectacular papers, and I think I suggested something like this, and he said something like, no, wrong. Part of me wanted to die of shame. But then a voice inside me spoke up: “Well at least I will never tell my readers what fucking color moss is.” It then added, “This man likes Elizabeth Bishop, for God’s sake. He does not know anything. You are the only one who knows anything.” I figured if I told myself this a few thousand times, I would start to believe it.
I have always felt that to like poetry I would have to become another person, one who wasn’t just really obvious, who thought about things a lot before opening my mouth, who was more dependably capable of enjoying a subtle experience, and who had questions about life other than, “Oh my God, what did she say when he said that?” and, “So are they getting back together?” and, “How much?” It would be such an effort to be this person, the person who could savor the idea of cold plums and stand in front of the Emily Dickinson Museum and marvel, “Wow, she wrote all those poems in there” instead of, “I wonder what that place would look like with a bigger porch.” But at this point I worry what might become of me if I wasn’t just always eager to get to the most basic part of things — the story, the joke, the explosion, the re-model. I would have to start all over.
I’m going to level with you. At the end of a yoga class the other day the teacher read a poem called “Become Becoming” by someone named Li-Young Lee and I got chills, and then lay there, throbbing with the thought, I am going to die someday. And then, just a few minutes ago, I read the Elizabeth Bishop poem “One Art” and gasped at the end, which probably means it is a pretty good poem. But I have to sort of stand by hating poetry, because somewhere, deep in the fabric of the universe, there’s a 19-year-old girl, standing in her college adviser’s office, afraid that everyone in the world except for her understands what matters, and I just can’t bring myself to betray her.
Photo via netsrac/flickr.