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IS WRITING POETRY A WASTE OF TIME?

Updated on January 12, 2013



THE WAY IT WAS. . .AND IS

In most ancient cultures, poets were revered. The Greek word from which 'poet' is derived meant “the maker”, and poets were regarded as seers and wise men who penetrated the core of the Mysteries and the unfathomable secrets of the gods. Today, only a razor-thin slice of the population ever even thinks about poetry, never mind regards it as a form of high Art attuned to the music of the Spheres. Today, if you say you're a poet, people will respond, somewhat nervously, with “well, ah, okay, but what do you really DO?” So, off the top, we can safely assert that poets are not up there with firefighters, doctors, bakers, and taxidermists as respectable workers in the world.

Our culture respects producers of what we use and contributors of what we need. Poets produce words on a page and contribute nothing substantive that we need. A giant poetic voice of our times, Leonard Cohen, was finally Heard only when he turned from poetry per se , casting his vision instead into immensely popular songs and performances. Now he produces entertainment, which we need. Vision in new clothes.


WHAT IS POETRY, ANYWAY?

No one knows. It's like electricity—everyone knows what it does, but no one knows what it IS. It strikes me as little short of amazing that grown men and women, otherwise responsible and rational , will dedicate themselves to an activity that they cannot define. Wordsworth described the process of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” tempered with the passage of some time, then “recollected in tranquility”. Okay, but that description could work for your thoughts on a particularly urgent bowel movement, could it not? And Coleridge’s “the right words in the right order” sounds like the shopping list I used in the supermarket last week. We need something exclusive, precise, compelling.

I'm a poet-member of a LinkedIn thread called The Poetry Forum, which has had almost 5000 posts in about seven months, many of which attempt to define poetry. In my judgment we have failed—but we're getting close, as are poets on various poetry threads on Hubpages. The embryonic “definition” we've toyed with goes something like this: “poetry is an intensely economical use of highly charged language to pursue a substantive subject in a compelling form within which a reader experiences an epiphany generated exclusively by the form and content of the poem.” Arghh! I don't like it already, close or not. Too pompous and long-winded. I'm drawn to the simple Truth about poetry expressed by the American poet Robert Creeley: Form is Never More Than An Extension of Content. That, of course, is not any kind of a definition, but it strikes me as irrevocably True of both the process of writing a poem and the end result of having it on a page. Maybe it's enough. I think it's enough for many poets, and I don't care if the general public gets it or not.


SO CAN WE AT LEAST AGREE ON WHAT IS A POEM?

For many, anything in lines that rhyme is a poem. So all those Hallmark ditties and repetitive devotional verses will qualify. Not in this article. This article is unabashedly elitist, written by a poet for poets. The gushing sentimentality of the worst of greeting card syrup does not make the cut, any more than a child's crude wooden rifle is a '”gun” . Such imitations are form without substance and do harm to the Art of Poetry by posturing, often through the compelling repetition of rhyme, to be something they are not.

A real poem will jolt a reader emotionally, almost viscerally. Ben Jonson, the 17th-century contemporary of Shakespeare, once wrote an epitaph on the death of a five-year-old daughter of a friend. Here it is:

Underneath this Stone doth lie

As much Beauty as can Die.

Feel the jolt? Feel the sheer evocative power generated in those charged eleven words? Could you—would you want to—change one word? Many people, introduced to that two-line poem for the first time, never forget it. That's a poem.


SO WHY DO WE DO IT?

Scour HubPages and Linkedin and other discussion forums on poetry, and poets will repeatedly state that they must do it. Very simple. Writing poetry is their heroin, their cigarette, their compulsion. If in a given day they don't at least try to write a poem, they feel depleted and incomplete. Writing poetry is what makes them roll, regardless of what they do to put meat and potatoes on the table. One guy said that he was ecstatic upon his retirement not because he was quitting full-time work but because he was beginning full-time poetry.

Poets write poetry because they're drawn to the compressed language, the maximum impact in short span, that poetry demands. Some say they explode on the page and never revise or edit. Others plan their work to the last detail and methodically craft the final piece over weeks, perhaps months. Some write exclusively for themselves, with no thought of ever showing their work to anyone (rare); others are organized and totally oriented to publishing their work to the widest audience possible as quickly as possible (almost as rare); others publish online to build up their confidence and try some “legitimate” publishing after a time (quite a few of us); others just fumble along, writing as much as they can, publishing online but really rather vague about what they want to do with their talent (most of us). It doesn't matter why. What matters is getting good poetry out there, first of all to each other for enjoyment, sharing, commentary, and learning. . .and second, beyond these threads to the world.


SO WHY DID I WRITE THIS PIECE?

A great essay it ain't. Mostly I tried to pull together some thoughts of my own, and of other poets on poetry and poetics to stimulate some discussion on topics we all hold dear. I fervently hope I've pissed some of you off and that you leap to the keyboard to show me the error of my ways. Or perhaps I've opened a new perspective and you want to explore that. Or perhaps I've confirmed some of your own thinking and you want to consolidate some stuff in a comment.

Whatever this article may or may not be, it's focused on the Art we all love. If it makes you want to write a response of ANY kind, we all win. Thanks for reading.


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    • mercuryservices profile image

      Alex Munkachy 

      5 years ago from Honolulu, Hawaii

      Interesting hub. I remember discovering Charles Bukowski, and then the whole way I thought about poetry changed. Now I feel like poetry is on the up and up again. Attention spans are shorter, and that works to a poet's advantage. In my writing class the focus is on flash fiction, and the shorter varieties of that come in 250 word flavors! Then you have social networks like Twitter where being brief is mandatory. Also, poetry is pretty big on HubPages. There's something to be said for chopping yourself down, severing off sentences and paragraphs until you are left with just a beautiful, gushing bloody stump of the main idea you want to get across. Sometimes it's easier to splatter your thoughts around that way.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      5 years ago from California

      I so enjoyed your exploration here. I am not sure what poetry is, but I know it when I read it---same with teaching voice--I am not sure of all the necessary components for a beautiful sound, but I know it when I get a student (or myself) to that place--

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 

      5 years ago

      I would like to think of myself as an anti-poet actually as I always try to subvert the weary old traditions of poe-it-tree (lol) and have some fun and play around with its conventions.

      Poetry is really anything you want it to be and I always encourage novice or young poets to just be themselves, write from their hearts and their minds will always follow. I look for and admire something different in other writers; as if they are writing their very own language and not to blindly follow stuffy old poetry anthologies whose language may seem a tad outdated with the current generation.

      So I just say go for it - drop the pretense and have some fun.

      And thank you so much my fellow Canadian for your esteemed comments on my humble little hubpage - coming from a scholarly writer like yourself really meant a lot .

      Sending you warm wishes and good energy from lake erie time ontario canada 4:54pm

    • moonfroth profile imageAUTHOR

      Clark Cook 

      5 years ago from Rural BC (Canada) & N of Puerto Vallarta (Mexico)

      HAT-- No, Man--it isn't all you've got left. You wrote this note. That's reaching out, that's RECOGNITION that I'm out there, and others are out there. And you want that contact. Or you wouldn't have written the note at all.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 

      5 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for this. For better or worse it is all I have left. I am fortunate some people like what is left of me.

    • profile image

      lilyfly 

      5 years ago

      You A-Wipe! You didn't tell me you had cancer!!!! Arggggghhhh! Praying for you, and will daily.

      Poetry is magic, it's a verbal prayer to the gods , a luminous offering to the universe, a bargaining chip for better pasture.. a love letter to the stars, an amalgam and a query, it's blood, and bone, and fire, and soul, quasars of the human mind. Does that make sense? Good, because I know you know, but us, and a very few care at all. But that's O.K., because I've always rather liked the idea of a select few toiling on anyway.

      Well, you creep, (cancer was described as alligators) such a man thing to do to me, did you think it would have concerned me? So what is that between two friends?

      The first word is a typo. I think that's about all you have to fix. At least you get to go to Mexico. I'm sure that will recharge your batteries. Sending much love and prayer... lily

    • diogenes profile image

      diogenes 

      5 years ago from UK and Mexico

      I cancelled a trip to Mexico this February, I was there last August for a month. I had a very messed up year. That's good news about your health...like being born again!

      I will go to Mexico in October or loose my open ticket...it's such an operation from the UK and I hate flying now.

      Take care

      Bob

      PS It was Diggory Press I had the trouble with, the owner is a bitch called Rosalyn

    • moonfroth profile imageAUTHOR

      Clark Cook 

      5 years ago from Rural BC (Canada) & N of Puerto Vallarta (Mexico)

      BOB --

      BUMMER! the royalties and recognition, i mean. What a bounder that guy is! Great to hear from you. My wife and I are off to our beloved Mexico in about a month. That damn cancer operation, however, has shot my travel medical insurance to the stars, so we can only afford to stay 6 or 8 weeks. The good news is that the docs are 100% sure they got the cancer completely. So I may be grumbling around the planet for some years to come.

    • diogenes profile image

      diogenes 

      5 years ago from UK and Mexico

      Hi Clark. Poetry has meant a lot to me in my life, both reading and writing. To a great extent, the real art is lost today, people have too much going on to distract them...I haven't composed anything meaningful for years.

      I did publish "Charged Particles," a small anthology but have no idea if it received much attention as the publisher went belly-up and kept all the royalties from this and two books!

      Hope you are well

      Bob

    • moonfroth profile imageAUTHOR

      Clark Cook 

      5 years ago from Rural BC (Canada) & N of Puerto Vallarta (Mexico)

      IRISH -- always a great pleasure to hear from you m'friend--and if I have indeed managed to get ou thinking about these matters, ensure that I hear from you again.

    • moonfroth profile imageAUTHOR

      Clark Cook 

      5 years ago from Rural BC (Canada) & N of Puerto Vallarta (Mexico)

      We haven't "seen" each other for quite a while Cynth--and this is a delightfully sensitive response and re-introduction to your lucid prose. You made my morning. Thank you.

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 

      5 years ago from Upstate, New York

      You, my friend have a fantastic sense of humor while utilizing an outstanding ability for writing. Your talents are so wide-ranging. From poetry to an article such as this.

      You have certainly opened many perspectives for my contemplation. Whether described as a bowel movement or a great masterpiece, I will be pondering the comparisons.......

      Take care

    • cynthtggt profile image

      Cynthia Taggart 

      5 years ago from New York, NY

      I think great poetry is a reflection of the individual soul that though unique offers a glimpse of the eternal longings or feelings of everyone. Everyone has a moment in solitude or reflection that eludes them after thinking about it too much; and then they say to themselves: "What is it about that thought that made me feel this way"? and then along comes a poet who miraculously makes you feel it again, that thing, that essence, that smell, that sound, that taste, sometimes all in one, and you sit back and feel understood and then you love him or her for giving back that which you thought you lost - you know, that thing.

      Regards, Moon.

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