May 21, 2013

Why People Don't Like Poetry & What To Do About It

Poets have an obligation to consider why poetry is the least marketable of all genres. What do we do wrong?  In a poem, Rosario Castellanos wrote: 

Silence alone is wise.
But with my words, as with a hundred bees,
I am building a small hive.

Silence might very well be best, yet we are given the language and must use it for beauty's sake as well as practicality.  Poetry is a form that repels some people; perhaps they are afraid of being swarmed or stung.

Bad poetry gives poetry a bad name.  Bad poetry is pedantic.  It might be ostentatious, overwrought, or even unctuous.  It tells the reader what to feel.  It does not evoke an emotional response, and it can be too superficial or sentimental.  It lacks focus.  Metaphors are mixed. It relies on cliches. The mind wanders, the language is stilted or overly sing-song. The poet has arranged the lines in ways that are distracting and don't contribute to the meaning of the whole. Exposure to poetry like this is painful.

According to Mirriam Webster, solipsism is the philosophy that the self cannot know anything behind the self, and secondarily, "extreme egocentrisim." Solipsism might be one of job hazards for writers. Individual consciousness and experience offers a starting place for creative work, but how can we avoid boring others? Get off dead center. A friend of mine used to say that about people who despite the direction of dialogue always brought a conversation to their own struggles, accomplishments, wisdom. They are self congratulatory. It makes you want to run away, fast. How can you tell if you are solipsistic? Look for a glaze in the eyes of those around you, a certain lack of engagement, or withdrawal. At your desk, question the material and more importantly, yourself. What are your motives? What is your quest? Have you arrived at the true subject?  Have you developed your material enough to leap over the boundary of self? Can you find other patterns besides your own?

What is good poetry?  Of course, it's different for everybody, and it's difficult to articulate. I like what Emily Dickinson said, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Good poetry is physical. It engages the senses. It opens the mind and senses. I also like what Dylan Thomas said, "Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toes twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing." In other words, poetry connects to emotion, and it plays with language patterns in a way that is physically satisfying. In her work, my artist friend Gladys Koski Holmes felt she had to "break something open." This definition, applied to good art or poetry, satisfies me because it suggests that "aha" experience. It achieves or alternately, descends to a different level. It engages the imagination.  Carl Sandburg said, "Poetry is a diary kept by a sea creature who lives on land and wishes he could fly."

Aside from that, poetry needs good readers. It needs those who have a quest. The language of poetry is concentrated; it needs those who want to breathe a richer mix of oxygen. It needs people who are engaged in the creative process, who like to be challenged intellectually and who are not intimidated by ambiguity. Poetry needs readers who are willing to be changed by what they read.  It needs people to use their minds and bodies to receive literature; in other words, those who like to dance to new music.

Work like a bee, if you are a poet, from bloom to bloom, drunk with nectar, and make honey. (Keep in mind that bees have flight patterns, and notice how methodical and organized is a hive). If you are reader, visit the hive and savor the complex flavors.  Here's more of the poem that I began with -- poetry is the best way to speak:

by Rosario Castellanos
Silence alone is wise.
But with my words, as with a hundred bees,
I am building a small hive.

All day the hum
of happy work strews the air
with the gold dust of a far-off garden.

Within me a slow roar grows as in a tree
when a fruit ripens.
All that was earth -- darkness and weight --
all that was turbulence of wild sage, leaves rustling,
is becoming flavor and roundness.
Sweet imminence of the word!

Because a word is not a bird
that flies and escapes far away.
Because it's not a rooted tree.

A word is the taste
our tongue has of eternity;
that's why I speak.

(excerpt from the longer poem translated by Magda Bogin)

Stavans, Ilan, editor. The FSG Book of Twentieth Century Latin American Poetry. c2011. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York.  (pp 446-447)


  1. Based on the except above, The Splendor of Being is a good poem. It scores 2.53 on the Poetry Assessor (

  2. The Poetry Assessor tool is amazing! I like using it, and perhaps it can help poets make good revisions.