The Trouble With Poetry

The Trouble With Poetry


The trouble with poetry is that most people think it’s not for them. And those people who think it is for them often seem to want to own and control it. They can’t wait to tell others what is and isn’t poetry, how poetry should be written, what kinds of things it should be about and any number of other strictures and dictates.


The trouble with poetry is that many people are stuck with ideas about what poetry is like, how it sounds and the kinds of people who read or write it. This gives them the idea that they don’t like poetry, whereas more truly they simply don’t like their idea of poetry, of what they think poetry is. They think, “That kind of stuff is not for me. It’s like jazz. It’s for nerds and intellectuals. I like (say) pop music, fast fiction and films. And clothes and clubbing and what not...”


Let’s say you ask the person who says that, “Can you think of a favourite song, one you specially like...?” They say, “Er.... oh that lovely Paul Simon song with the line about ‘diamonds on the soles of his/her feet’ with the African choir in the background on the Gracelands album.” So then you can say, “But that line is pure poetry. That’s an example of making poetry out of words. I know it’s for a song, but the idea, the image, is a really good example of a poetic use of language. So there’s a bit of poetry you happen to really like. Sure, the tune, the arrangement, the rhythm, the storyline of the song are all important too, but the way the language is being worked is just one example of poetic language calling to you, working on you. So maybe you do like poetry, potentially, after all...”


Here’s another little test you can try. “Can you think of an advertisement where you like the sound of the words, the catch phrase, the jingle?” Many an answer will reveal a response to a poetic playing with words, using sounds, rhymes, rhythm, association etc. Finger-lickin’ Good (Kentucky Fried Chicken) where the “ lickin’ ” suggests a rhyme with “chicken” as well as suggesting something so delicious it makes you lick your fingers with pleasure.


Sometimes poets themselves seem to be trying to put readers off rather than welcome them to the poem. They read their stuff out loud in weird and mannered ways which can often, to a new listener, seem downright cranky. “Why are you reading in that strange way? Are you on something, or what? Can’t you read ‘normally’ ?”


Sometimes poets write in such a way as to bar most readers from reading further by referring to things their readers have never heard of, without giving them any helpful information. Or they use words or phrases that are so off most people’s radar it makes the poem unintelligible. “This guy is really clever, but they’re too clever for the likes of me and I can’t make head or tail of what they’re saying. They seem to know what they’re about but it’s no use to me and I can’t be bothered to waste good time way out of my comfort zone when I could be reading something that makes me laugh, tells me a good story or makes me think hard about something serious that I can understand.


Of course, anyone may (at least in free societies) write about anything in any way they choose, and I wouldn’t want it any different from that. I don’t seek to be a new form of thought-police for poetry. Freedom of expression. I would always ask that for poetry, for literature, for culture. But I’d like more poets to be aware of just how much they cut themselves off from a potential readership by writing the way they do. And I’d like to ask them, “Are you sure this is absolutely necessary to your work and what you want for it? Might there not be a point in trying to find a clear, authentic, genuine, personal voice that can speak clearly to most people most of the time, given their consent to read or listen?”