Poetry and “maturing” tastes

Poetry as an art is subjective not only in quality but in interpretation and experience.

Such experiences are difficult to shape as an author. It is questionable that such shaping should even be attempted. I suppose, in that,it parallels the ethics of psychology or propagandistic advertisement. Ought we, as writers write what we think will tug at people? What will resonate? As mentioned in a previous post, poetry is weak if it does not resonate — if it is incapable of communicating — but what about the other side? What about not accounting for taste, but being accountable for our tastes?

My own tastes have certainly changed with time. As I have changed as a person, so too have my tastes, with equally unclear catalysts. I cannot point to moments in my life and say “that’s it, that’s where I realized I disliked enjambment” but somehow that feeling sits in me, to this day. I have no idea what happened, but something changed. To call it a realization implies it has always been that way, but I do not think that is true. This is most evident, however, in my own work.

In writing poems, I have clearly changed my style over time. What may not be so clear, however, is that as my tastes have “matured,” a sense of contempt for works I once found ideal or perfect also developed. Often, my past work frustrates me, sometimes enough to require a complete rewrite, as I still find the underlying concepts interesting. In one case, a poem I wrote has 14 versions on record. Here is a more recent poem that sat in a position relative “perfection” for nearly four years:

Some would say that God was there
Others knew it was just the Faeries.
For some, for many, nature is a place of peace.
That is God.
Order in all things.
Structure and a reason.
It is meditation that seeks an inner silence,
a stillness to wander in.
A slice of oblivion to inhabit.

For others, Nature is a place of Chaos.
Those are the Faeries.
Disorder with harmony, bound without clarity.
It is meditation that seeks reverberations,
Being amidst a thousand echoes

And then I read it one day, and nothing about it sat well enough with me. I still loved the ideas behind it and certain images and even specific word choices, but for whatever reason, after four years of being content with it, I suddenly felt it was deeply inadequate. In this case, the alterations I made were drastic. It’s almost fair to say the rewrite was more so an entirely different poem than a retooling or fixing. This is how it turned out instead:

Some would say that God was there
Wandering past the trees,
But something else stalked sylvan air:
A cohort, circus, of Faeries.

God implied a harmony:
Order in a quiet breeze;
Whistling reeds as symphony;
A choir nestled in the trees.

Earth enchanted
To follow lead.

But in a moment, contrast stands.
The winds have turned and balance shakes.
Shouldered by brittle wingspans,
Faeries beg the birds debate.

And the woods erupt in raucous chirps
Irreverent of time and place.
Yet a certain harmony is birthed
Left by Chaos, in its wake.

A breath is taken
And the wind is freed.

In some ways, even now, I feel discontent about it. But I also feel a lot better — enough so that I’ve let this poem represent me in a few contests.

And yet, I feel as though even if this version single-handedly won me a contest, or was placed in a literary magazine, front and center, ready to print and spread across the world, I would still find it unfinished or perhaps wrong. Even with all the validation in the world, this specific version would still feel incorrect at its fringe.

I seldom seek critique for poetry, not because I fear it, but because I feel like I wouldn’t be able to respect it as much as with writing. I would, of course, listen to what others had to say, but with poetry, I find the locus of authority on my work is much harder to share, or perhaps is simply more limited to myself. I do not claim to be a greater expert in poetry than prose, but with prose, I am much more receptive to responses — I actively seek beta readers and critique when I can (and I fear that my requests for critique are an imposition), even though I am not necessarily lacking confidence in my work.

In poetry, I am much more aware of the risks of subjectivity, not only between myself and others, but within myself.

The Rain and Subjective Images

Rain is, perhaps, the simplest and most common argument I can make for subjective tastes in people.

At first, I thought it might be color, but deep down I am always plagued by the idea that no two people see colors the same way–that grand question of perspective every seventh grader eventually stumbles into– but then I realized that there was a more persistent image, shared in media, culture, even education, while simultaneously countered in those very same things.

Calling rain important to the planet, to us as people, is a drastic understatement. Though, I remember a time, as a child when every little song we learned and half the impetus for my picture books was that the rain had come and ruined what was supposed to be a sunny, shiny day. The plot would be about finding ways to be content with the rain– to do something indoors. Or it would be framed slightly more sinister, as a way to hide from storms, in all their lights, sounds, and sensation.

But I always loved the rain. Growing up, I thought that made me weird. As a teen, I felt it was a sign I was moody, to prefer the grey skies and the contrast of a vibrant downpour that shook my vision of everything in between. And sometimes I still feel that way, though I’ve been keen on expressing my love more and found that many people prefer rain the way I do.

In fact, the last time I met someone and they said “no, not really” when I asked if they enjoyed the rain in spring, or summer storms, it almost felt like I couldn’t trust the person. I was surprised in a way. How do they clear their miasmas? Do they let their problems bake away in the sun, instead of washing away?

As benign as their distaste was, it felt like something I could not get over–could not overcome about them.

Rain has often been a positive symbol in my poetry, as it has in my life. Every time it rains and I hoped it would, I feel a sense of calm, tempered only by my worry that my desires have inconvenienced the working world around me. But that doesn’t stop me from hoping.

Sunlight can be depicted as harsh and blinding. Sunlight can mean death and withering in unforgiving heat, just as rain can be set up as bleak and dreary. It’s subjective, like most experiences. And yet it was, perhaps, the first time I identified preference as feeling deeply wrong in the media I was handed.

Maybe I loved rain because I lived on a hill and the water never pooled much, it dynamically flowed, even with the lightest consistent drizzle. I cannot day for sure. One thing I noted as I grew up and attached more memories and feelings of and about individuals to seasons and weather is that nobody could claim the rain. Spring represented one lost love, winter another, fall a few select friends, and summer still holds a sense of carefree lingering with certain people, even as summer has faded from being a significant break, a vacation, into being just another set of work weeks. But rain, rain has remained independent. I’ve weathered hurricanes beside lovers, I’ve stood under awnings, reveling in the quiet open air intimacy provided, I’ve spent hours in rain in the company of others– yet nobody has taken it from me. Rain never reminds me of any one person in the way other seasons and weathers have dragged me to certain memories. Perhaps that is a comfort all its own.

So much of this has been an exploration of my feelings, and so little an exploration of subjective tastes or imagery. But I think it proves my point as well as any dissection of picture books and cartoons and songs might. Right now, there are people who might be reading this who “don’t get it–“ people who don’t understand why I love the rain, the same way I can’t follow their distaste, and that proves my point better than any analysis could hope to.

In rain, I’ve found joy. Sometimes my inhibitions melt away for a moment, and I feel free to walk the steaming asphalt, barefoot, or to forego any shielding from the torrents, onlookers be damned, satisfied that wherever I turn up, people will try to commiserate with my damp self, only for me to lack empathy in what they deem a tragedy of sorts–

To be caught in the rain.

The creation of “immature” poetry

Poetry is often described as a personal art, expressive to a point nearing complete subjectivity.

Poetry is often described as a personal art, expressive to a point nearing complete subjectivity.

Yet, there are certain measures of objective quality. We have a sense when a poem is innately bad, rooted in subjective matters of taste and interpretation. That much is hardly in debate. Opinions will always be plentiful and varied when it comes to poems, though some near being of an “objective” perspective, given their years of experience, practice, or prominence within poet circles. One might be tempted to claim that the only platform for judgment of a poem is from atop the peaks of one’s own experience. Given the nature of poetry as written word that bends and breaks the rules of prose in terms of structure, grammar, and even narrative, it would be fair to become an unerring skeptic of the idea that poetry might ever have a chance at a fair, objective trial. Yet, I would argue there are certain measures of objective quality — or at least subjective tastes so universal that they approach as close as we can to an objective stance. One such issue is on the nature of an “immature” poem. But what do I mean by that?

There exists a certain cliché that stalks poetry as an art —  the notion of moody teen poetry, steeped in self-interest.

But why is that poetry bad? What gives it the natural position at the bottom of poetry’s quality and skill curve? How can it be so clearly labeled? More importantly, why is that label such a communicable term?

It is an immature attempt to explore one’s ego — confined to one’s ego. One’s inner-self or ego can be a powerful thing to explore in poetry and prose, but it has to be done properly in order for people to connect with it. The cliché of a bad poem is a work that fails to connect with people. Even when viewed a thousand times, creating it has the same effect as screaming into a void.

A line like “my heart is darkness and I am bleak like the moon, soaked in the blood of a thousand ravens” sits poorly. It isn’t inherently bad on every level. So let’s look at where it fails. The imagery isn’t weak, thought it might be a bit dissonant, given the idea of bleakness contrasting with something being soaked, but it’s far from outright awful. The words are strong, if not a bit excessive. Some people might even resonate with it. The words are used properly. The problem is the possessive nature of the statement. It may not come across as possessive at first read, because it is a declaration of one’s feelings, but that is where its possession thrives. It is claiming ownership of a certain feeling. Starting with “my” and reinforcing with “I” serves to weaken the applicability to readers. It’s not the expression of or the story of an experience that other people can claim. It comes with the unwritten caveat of “and nobody will ever feel the same way I have felt.”

When I first began writing poems, I did so in a manner that heavily relied on using “I.” As I grew older and wrote more, I started to notice that every poem that heavily relied on being statements about myself and my feelings bugged me. They felt weak, uncomfortable, embarrassing — but the embarrassment was not from the vulnerability they represented, it was from the lack of quality or demonstrable value. At best, I’d written a wordy way to say “I’m sad about something that happened recently but I would like to keep the reason vague.” I’m sure other people have felt that, but it simply isn’t evocative.

A good poem can take the fringes of one’s experience in an emotion and tug on them to bring someone into a condition of empathizing outside their own direct experiences. That’s why love is such a common subject — even among the famous and talented poets. Everyone has experienced love in some way, but no two loves are the same, so we have to rely on the common threads, the shared fringes that poetry can pull on.

As time went on, I learned to not only feel bad about using “I” but to outright reject it whenever possible. The reasons are different from, but not entirely dissimilar to that of writing a formal essay without “I.” You don’t want the reader to think these are your opinions, in an essay. In a poem, you don’t want them to believe that these emotions or thoughts are unique to you. You want to resonate with people. You want people to connect to your work.

Here is a poem I wrote in March of 2011, before I had even graduated High School — a poem that I have filed away in a folder marked: “Borderline Irredemable Poems from the edgy sad starter days”

I seek forgiveness where there is no fault
I in myself create this guilt
I cannot help and am to blame
For all misfortunes that are dealt

There is this sense
Of helplessness
Which I feel
And seek to redress

But in itself
There is no cure
A fatal flaw
of distinct allure.

Can you see what I mean? Most of the poem is declarative of my feelings. It doesn’t explain anything. It is, in part, another example of failing to show, rather than tell, but more importantly, it doesn’t even go so far as what telling does and tell you about an experience or events or a narrative. It tells you that I feel guilt, that I seek forgiveness. It doesn’t help the reader feels these notions. It lacks any and all subtlety.

Of course, moody poems are not the only genre to fall into this trap, just the most common for the cliché. Love poems do it as well, but I think because love poems tend to flatter their victim, there is no accounting for taste. Moody poems don’t target anyone, because they are, by nature, introspective (unless they read more like an indictment or manifesto…which would be its own problem).

In psychology terms, as mentioned before, this would be an issue of being stuck in one’s ego, lacking experience in more broadly applicable things, or even one’s peers lacking such experiences, leading to the perspective of being the only one who might understand one’s own plight. I’m certain these poems are often written by people who consider themselves abnormally mature. I know I did. Poems like this, even if they use vibrant images, still inherently refuse to take the reader anywhere. They are not a journey. They are not an episode.

They are a statement of one’s reaction to unexpressed circumstances, sometimes adjacent to metaphor. And that gives the reader nothing.

My Personal Crisis with Poetry: On Digital Publication and Rights

By now, I assume word has gotten around to most Bloggers…

Putting work–short stories, poems, a full length novel (should you dare)–on a public blogging platform is considered, by many sources, to be published, when it comes to First Publication rights. Self-publication is no longer a joke, in certain circles, so in a sense, it is quite valid for publishing houses to take the idea seriously. The problem, however, is that in reality, self-publication exists somewhere between valid and a joke. Putting your own book up on Amazon is a very real form of self-publishing that often takes work, and by virtue of being a marketed product, is validated as it sells. Blogs and short form content, (like poetry, as discussed previously, here) are taken less serious. For example, if you are asked about the publication of your prior work in an interview and you cite your own blog, chances are you’ll get the professional equivalent of an eye roll.

But I would like to focus on poetry for now.

In my experience, submission guidelines for poetry are sometimes more lax, but still important to follow when it comes to publication or contest entries. Their laxness is that some, like the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship will allow for some poems to be previously published.  Others, like the Walt Whitman Award allow for any number of the poems to be published, so long as the specific collection itself has yet to be.

The latter is a situation I’ve seen often when it comes to both publication submissions and contests (though the Whitman Award is certainly a hybrid of those, given the prize of publication.)

The problem is that this laxness will leave aspiring poets in the dark. I know that I personally fear putting too much of my work onto my blog, because it is sometimes unclear what crosses the line into being too published. There’s a sense that we ought hold back. Even among young and new poets, their websites and blogs often imply a large body of work that is unavailable via the blog or site, unless through a store page.

And that’s where things get blurry. As I discussed before, the issue of how to monetize, patronize, or otherwise contribute to a poem in the modern age has become complicated by our sense of value. Of course these young and new poets should profit from their labors. Of course they should be able to sell a book as they please. But there is a tyranny in having to hold back in order to make it so one can make a living from their work. It is unjust to all parties. The audience is given loose incentive based on a delicate balance between sharing and under-sharing of the poet’s efforts. The poet is left in a worse state, having to decide how much to exist, how much presence to commit to the open world, because publication is a world of Rights, but it is no longer the only means to become, well, public. In the end, what this does is it creates a culture (an admittedly formative one) where emphasis is placed so heavily on the means by which a poem is cast into the world. It creates a culture where consideration has to be given, not to if an audience will enjoy the work or how to find the right audience, but how to withhold from them properly.

It creates a culture where it feels as though one could waste a poem.

My Personal Crisis with Poetry: Patronage and Payment.

There is something wrong with how we consume poetry.

There is something wrong with how we consume poetry.

 

Poetry is, to me, a very strange form of creative writing. The rest of the world seems to agree, given the treatment it gets. For one thing, unlike most other forms of writing, there seems to be a collective agreement that there’s no money in poetry when it comes to publication, unless you’re Maya Angelou (or as a more topical, though less impactful example: Rupi Kaur).

As I understand, it is for that reason that contests, such as the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowships exist. Because Poetry has to be funded, encouraged to flourish somehow. And it’s evidently in lump sums that come through victories in the medium at key points in one’s career. The aforementioned fellowship aims at young poets and requests that a majority of the submitted works are those that have yet to be published. Other contests, like that of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize are for poets late into their career. Then there are those that fall in the middle or at the beginning, such as the James Laughlin Award and Walt Whitman Award respectively. Of course, some contests reward the poet with publication, but it is the idea of these prizes, tied tightly to career mileposts, like first publications, second publications, mid-career poet, poet who has had a lifetime of achievement, etc, that seem to motivate the art, knowing that something about the consumption or presentation of poems makes it a harder sell than a book.

That difficulty comes from value expectations.

Value expectations are everywhere. Imagine having to pay to consume a meme. Imagine the outrage people have when something that used to be free starts costing money, even though it had always cost money to produce. Poetry is stuck in a similar space. Sharing a poem is much much easier than sharing a book. Consuming a poem is easier than consuming a book. I’m sure you’ve seen Wordsworth poems image posts of his poems against a field of grass or daffodils or some sort of stationery with a wispy cursive font. I’m sure many people have, in fact, only seen the works of Bukowski or Rupi Kaur in a quickly consumable format. Often, not even shared as copy-pasted text, but as an image of text — likely because it is easier, being one click, no highlighting, and you can send it, and that sharing an image often implies lack of authorship on the part of the sharer. They may be claiming to have discovered it, but the majority of content created by the average internet user is likely text and not images, provided you discount images of themselves or friends. (Think: how many of your friends on facebook make their own meme content compared to those who share it? How often might you assume a block of text copy pasted at you was authored by your friend, as compared to an image they sent?)

Poetry by virtue of the details of its consumption is given an assumed lower value. First of all, many of the best poems in the world hardly reach 200 words (for some, not even so many syllables). Second, it is often cast as having a barrier to entry, by way of its metaphors, references, strange layouts, and “depth” or hidden and implied meanings. In a world where length of content often matters more than depth, (just look at how video games market themselves with having “over 100 hours of side content!”) it is not surprising that poetry, with its short length and sometimes high gate of entry would start to fall to the wayside.

I am, however, not here to tell you that it has a value. Certain foundations seem to believe that it still does. Scholars still look to the poems of old, even as they validate new poets every year. Poets still exist and create content (though they tend to have a day job). I cannot tell you that it has a value — all I can do is hope to convince you through my work.