Is Poetry Failing Me, or Am I Failing Poetry?

I am the first to admit that I’m an elitist when it comes to literature, especially poetry. Since poetry is the genre in which I do and have done so much of my writing, and have read quite a bit of, I feel that I have the knowledge to comment on it as I contemplate on and write about it as much as I do.

I just recently attempted to read the Library of America edition of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, prose, and letters, and after having read all the prose and letters, began reading her first volume of poetry, and continued on from there. Although I enjoyed the first volume, I felt a disinterest in her subsequent volumes and couldn’t finish reading her poems.

This disinterest is nothing new, and exactly what I want to write about. Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, a thoughtful, quick-moving novel about Paul Chowder, a poet who is procrastinating over writing an introduction to a new poetry anthology while dealing with a breakup with his girlfriend, also prompted me to write this post. He even devotes a few pages to talking about Bishop, and coming on the heels of my failure to read her poems, Chowder’s enjoyment of her work haunted me in my failure to find similar pleasure.

I stopped reading poetry a number of years ago, though I’ve been writing it still, albeit to a much less degree. I never took the courses in modern and contemporary poetry that were offered in college, and wonder if by not taking them, did I do a disservice to myself as a poet and lover of poetry? What is the source of my disinterest in and discontent with poetry after 1900? Is it solely American poetry that I do not like or have a taste for? Or is it that at the age of thirty-six I have become too old, and realize that, as Chowder states, “Poetry is a young man’s job. What a frighteningly true thought”? Where and when did the disconnect and the discontent happen for me? Is it because I have read too widely in the classics of poetry throughout the last two decades, and have cut myself off from the vastly different writing style of modern and contemporary poetry and cannot grasp what its language reveals?

I feel quite strongly that I have failed poets and poetry by not reading those currently living breathers of the breath of the divine spirit that I believe infuses the language of poetry, as well as not reading the twentieth-century masters of the form as well outside of the few poems I had to read in high school. I have many questions and no real answers and can only formulate some type of a response as follows.

I am attracted to poetry that isn’t about animals, country life, or only about nature. If one writes a poem about nature I would hope that there is a revelation tucked beneath the surface of the language. I find poems about nature merely descriptive and cannot “feel” the same reaction as the poet in his or her writing of the poem, in their response to nature. Nature to me is a comfort, a beauty, a terror, and a revelation, and I will leave it at that.

“Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing,” says Paul Chowder. As for the former sentiment, he is correct in that whether in free verse or rhyme, the poet’s task is to embody, and give voice and form to, his or her emotion. The word form should be understood as having a flexibility of nature. There are forms of poetry and all poems have a form. And they give a form to our human experiences. “Singing,” Chowder continues, is a desire to warble out something that is beyond words but that relies on words.” Naturally, it is the same for poetry. Our hopes, dreams, and desires, our passions and emotions, our introspective thoughts, must find expression in words, in a language that rubs up against these feelings, these natural experiences of being human, and shapes them into an original, eloquent, and passionately expressed work of art. I say rub up against because, as Chowder makes clear, our essential human passions are beyond language and their intensity can only be approximated in the words we use to express them. And poetry is one of the greatest of the arts that documents our hearts, minds, and souls because it gives durable form but flexible boundaries to what we experience and hopes to find a wide audience in its expression of those thoughts and emotions.

For me, I find that the modern poetry I have read doesn’t really do this for me. I cannot connect to it because I feel that the language is too restrained, too controlled in its meaning and passion that I cannot feel anything in response to the poem or the speaker, whether it is the poet or not. I do not feel that the lives of these poets, and that which interests them or what they’ve experienced, moves me in any real way. I cannot relate to them. Is it because they were born and raised, lived and died, in another time and another place, in an America that is nowhere near the America it was in their youth, even in their maturity and old age? Maybe I read Sexton, Roethke, Millay, and Plath when I was too young, and on my own, which wasn’t the best thing to do? Or maybe I am so used to the grand, sweeping language of the greats—Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, the Romantics, and the Decadents—that anything else sharply pales in comparison?

Maybe the old poetic forms more successfully harnessed and brought to life the thoughts and passions of our human nature because of their structure, and so are ironically more freeing than binding? Does the bounded form and rhyme actually intensify the passion we feel that we seek to express in the language of poetry, while free verse just lets it run loose and so find no refinement, no rest, in a deeper understanding of itself because it is allowed to roam wild? Have true passion and beauty, and our faith in God, love, art, and the human race itself been drained from the marrow of our bones, and so we cannot write of, or with, this fullness of feeling anymore? Has the emotion and passion we used to feel become nothing but faint shadows, and so our words no longer ignite a spark or a flame in our readers or listeners because they hold no weight, no meaning, no natural human feeling or understanding? Again, it seems in trying to find any answers I have only produced more questions and the question that is the title of this post has no resolution at this time.

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