22 May 2011

What makes a great poem?

Without subscribing to any kind of cultural cringe, I have to admit to sometimes looking at the American poetry publishing scene with envy -- poets like Ted Kooser and Billy Collins, Mary Oliver and Maya Angelou, who write amazing poetry that's brilliantly conceived and executed and yet easily accessible to most readers. Where are Australia's great poets writing in this vein? Yes, they are out there. We do have fantastic poets like Peter Bakowski, whose poems are gifts to the rest of us. As an editor of Poetrix, I am privileged to read the works of many amazing women poets, poets whose work I love like Asuncion Pritchett and Connie Barber. But we still don't have the breadth of great poetry that they have in the US, which I suppose is not surprising given we have a much smaller population base. It's to be expected. But is that all it is?

Peter Bakowski came into one of our poetry classes the other day and spoke to our second-year poetry students about his philosophy of the art and craft of poetry and his life as a poet. As always, his talk was from the heart (just like his poetry!) and informative -- packed with great advice. Bakowski spoke about the importance of clarity in poetry writing (something both Kooser and Collins advocate), and how reading obscure poems makes him either angry or tired. I know how he feels. If I read a poem and my first reaction is "huh?", I might put it down to tiredness. If I then take a walk or a break and come back to it fresh, reread it and think about it and my reaction is still "huh?", I don't think it's a successful poem -- at least not for me. I want to get something out of every poem I read, and ideally I'd like to get something on a first reading. That isn't to say that I don't enjoy poems that give me more, that unfold their secrets on deeper thinking or subsequent reads -- I do -- but I should at least get something on that initial read. I should know what the poem is about on a superficial level at least.

Last weekend, my friend Sherryl and I went to the Booktown weekend (Back to Booktown) at Clunes. So many bookshops! I think we both almost melted with pleasure on the spot. While she attended a masterclass on crime writing, I went bookshopping (note, I use that as one word because bookshopping is far superior to any other kind of shopping and deserves its own word!). Later, when she went bookshopping, I attended a panel on biography writing. One of the speakers was well-known poet and biographer, Peter Rose. I've heard Rose speak before -- and every time he speaks candidly about his experience as a biographer, I come away thinking I must read his book (Rose Boys). I am interested in football (go, Tigers!) and families, and I own one, maybe two, of his poetry collections, and from what I know of the story, from what I've heard him say, and from the reviews I've read, I expect Rose Boys to be a powerful read: elegantly written, insightful and moving. But I have to say he astounded me with what he had to say in this session -- not so much on biography writing, which did nothing to change my intent to read his biography, but on poetry writing.

Rose said that a biographer has to take the audience into his confidence (so far so good), which was a new experience for him. He said it was the exact opposite of what he was trying to do as a poet -- and at this point I sat straighter in my chair -- that a poet's job was to be as obscure as possible. What? Of course, I've read obscure poems published in prestigious places -- they always leave me shaking my head and wondering whether I really need to read such prestigious journals -- but to hear someone actually say this . . .

The audience laughed. And Rose laughed too, and called it the poet's badge of honour. I wasn't sure whether the latter was tongue-in-cheek or not, whether he was surprised by the audience's reaction, whether the laugh was a bit self-deprecating. I still don't know. Taking the audience into his confidence -- as I've said he said nothing that put me off reading his biography, but his thoughts on poetry writing did leave me thinking deeply on the state of Australian poetry.

Of course there are all sorts of readers, and as writers we need to celebrate this, because if we all liked the same kinds of stories, the same kinds of poems, we wouldn't have much need for as many writers as we have. Some of us love the elegance and strong characterisation of literary writing, while others find the lack of plot leaves them bored. Some of us love the fast action and pace of genre writing, while others consider it hack writing and a waste of time. Some of us no doubt love obscure poems -- although I sometimes wonder if it really is about the flip-side of that "badge of honour": no-one wants to admit they can't understand an obscure poem.

But look at poetry sales. They're hardly what I'd call scintillating. I have lots of friends who don't read poetry. At all. Ever. When I ask them why they don't like it, they usually shrug and tell me they don't understand it. I always suggest they try different poets -- try Bakowksi, try Kristin Henry -- but persuading them to give it another go isn't so easy. Not when it comes to spending hard cash. I have writer-friends who say the same thing about poetry writing. They don't like it because they find it incomprehensible. There's a lot to be said for clarity, I think.

The poems that I love usually have a strong focus on imagery, but sometimes it's a clever turn of phrase or an unusual metaphor that strikes me. They might give me new understanding -- put me into someone else's shoes or challenge my beliefs. They might make me laugh or cry or speak to me on a personal level about something I care about. They always communicate an idea to me -- something I can hang my understanding of the poem on. That isn't to say that they're simple poems, although they may be, but more usually they're not, and I'll be rewarded for thinking more about them. I subscribe to the inverse way of writing complex ideas -- that the more complex an idea is the more simple the expression needs to be to make it understandable. I do, after all, want to communicate something to my audience -- if I didn't, I don't think I'd bother to write.

But I'm interested in what others think -- what do you think makes a great poem? And how do you feel about obscure poetry -- is it clever or does it leave you cold? I'd love you to share your thoughts with me . . .


Anonymous said...

The reason I don't read poetry is because it doesn't EVER cross my radar. I don't even think of it - and if I did, being completely ignorant, wouldn't have a clue where to start. So I suspect there's a problem with exposure and access and marketing - even among writers.
(Sorry not to answer your Qn, but I wanted to make this point!)

Moc said...

HI Tracey,

well, being a poet who LOVES clarity, I've had people enjoy my poetry for thqat very reason, plus a couple of other things like humour.

Personally, while I've read poetry that can be difficult, and sat through poems that are very long, for a poet to say that poetry should deliberately be obscure is ridiculous.
How much does this guy hate his readers? A lot I reckon!

Some poems will be obscure because they're from another century, or deal with matters that the audience or readers don't know about, and sometimes poets will fail in what they're trying to do poetically. Sometimes a poem will be very complex, all of which are interesting.

But no - for a poet to TRY to confuse his audience is simply rude, and shows that he is probably a bad writer.

Having said that, not all poems are suitable for all audiences.

misha said...

Hi Tracey

A great poem rips the guts out of a subject and displays them for all to see, differently, with a new perspective to it, perhaps. Or, it's written so obscurely the reader is left thinking and thinking, wondering...

This post has left me feeling better about the twaddle I turn out; I've had people go, "What? I don't get it?". I write it as it comes and it always means something to me, so it's not my intention to be 'obscure' about it. I'm yet to study poetry professionally, so perhaps that's it? I often read poems that I don't understand, but I know a great one when I read it.