Tracy Lee Karner

How to love poetry: true confessions about my affair

Oh, poetry, my first love, it may seem I have abandoned you. I’ve strayed to memoirs, essays, novels, and (gasp) even cookbooks, but you, I promise, will always remain first in my heart. You taught me nearly everything I know about the power of language.
The history of my relationship to poetry… 
Decades ago, I would fall in love with a poem for its particular combination of oral, aural, and philosophical beauty. I loved Robert Frost’s “Birches” and Shakespeare’s Sonnets for their perfect words. I loved Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” for its wit. I loved Milton’s Paradise Lost for the grandeur of its fugue-like sound.  And I loved T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” for its exotic strange use of a language that follows its own logic, makes little rational sense, yet conjures a profoundly satisfying experience of tragedy.
I was enduring a painful divorce, living the life of a financially burdened single mother, holding a full-time job while trying to finish a degree so I could support myself and my children. Meanwhile, I was guzzling poems like an alcoholic.
I had no time for the connoisseur business of sipping and swirling syllables. The gritty details of daily life would not allow me to repose in a hammock, reading and writing the days away, however much I wanted to do just that. It wasn’t a bad time, loving poetry with my body more than with my mind, going for the sensual high poetry could give me. It was a whirlwind, as the beginning of any good romance always is.
Eventually I determined that in order to delve deeper into the unfathomable power of language, I needed to trek with the literary theorists.
From what I can make of the history of literary theory, a millennia-long quarrel began when Plato insisted that art, (of which poetry is one form) is merely imitation, therefore it is for plebes who can’t wrap their inferior minds around the supremely superior wisdom of philosophy.
Aristotle audaciously disagreed.
Aristotle said art is the very thing that makes humans superior to animals, and moreover, it is the poet’s job to speak of what is nobly possible, not merely what has happened. So the arguments about literature, for centuries, were concerned with judgments about what is good, beautiful and harmonious, in other words, what literature should be about and what form it should take.
“This is good, this is better, that stinks,” said the authorities. “Read this. Don’t read that.”

  • “It is good to arouse human passion,” said one authority.
  • “No it isn’t, human passion must be regulated and controlled,” countered the other.

This little dispute sums up the essential difference between political parties, and explains why neither politicians nor  bickering literary critics can ever agree to stop wrangling and start accomplishing the real work.
I don’t want a critic living in my head, but I have entertained enough theory that I can’t get rid of him. I also can’t explain why the critic in my head speaks in a man’s voice. And he has an upper-crust British accent.
Whenever I read or write poetry, my critic now insists on joining the party. He yaps away, “What about gender… race… ideology… Freud… Jung… Marx… irony… the failure of Romanticism… and who chooses the canon?” He’s a fine, witty reading companion, but under his influence, the poems I write appear meager, undernourished and whiny.
But I’ve figured out how to shut his clapper about that. I’ve quit writing poems.
I figure he’ll eventually starve from lack of fodder. Meanwhile, since he’s a pompous ass and won’t lower himself to comment on personal essays, blog posts, romping good stories, or (gasp) cookbooks, I am free to amuse myself writing those.
But dear poetry, I have never stopped loving you. You abide with me.  Your sensuous effusions, your imaginative images, and your goatfoot-milktongue-twinbird music lives in my body, mind, heart and soul. You inform and form everything I write.
What informs and forms your writing, your art, your current obsession? 

24 thoughts on “How to love poetry: true confessions about my affair”

  1. Takes me back to my youth. Studying poetry in school. Seamus Heaney and so much meaning on one slim volume. Wishing I could write like Sylvia Plath at her age!!! Wendy Cope, irreverent and accessible.
    I don’t know where I lost my way with poetry either. I guess it’s because it’s not covered in the same way in the press as fiction and non-fiction are. The press is where I’ve found a lot of my new reading material. Poetry is just not treated as something current and relevant. Even though the poets I’ve mentioned above *are*. I think publishers see it the same way.
    It’s not different, it’s still writing, just a different form. But funny that we see it differently.

    1. Glad to have found another poetry-mate in you, Denise. Two things I’ve noticed: poetry isn’t profitable, therefore it gets no press. There are exactly 2 living American poets who make something like a living from poetry (and they’re not getting rich–Mary Oliver and Billy Collins). The rest have to subsidize their poetry by teaching, selling insurance or cars, cleaning houses… something that generates an income. The last American rock-star poet was Longfellow (and now the academics despise him).
      And in the 1990’s there was a lot of poetry that was mostly inaccessible for “average” readers who hadn’t completed a PhD in Literary theory. I don’t think it did poetry’s reputation any good.
      Still, there is plenty of awesome poetry being written. But it isn’t easy to find.

    1. Thank you, Richard. I definitely was quite obsessed with poetry for a couple of decades, but it was mostly a healthy obsession which taught me so much about all the rest of writing.
      I had a friend/mentor who said, back in the early 1990’s, that poetry was floundering because it had lost its narrative tradition. I didn’t really understand what he meant at the time, but now I agree with him. I had to step away from contemporary poetry to begin to understand narrative (which, considering Homer, Spenser, Milton and even Wordsworth and –yikes–Longfellow; even Dickinson, Whitman and T.S. Eliot retain many of the basic elements of narrative in their work).
      Another of the reasons I no longer write poems is that poetry editors still are mostly not interested in narrative, and that’s primarily what I’m interested in.

  2. I have never been exposed to poetry until I started blogging. I follow a couple of poetry sites. I have learned to enjoy the words and am always looking for ways to broaden my horizon

  3. Two lovely gifts, beyond your excellent post, Tracy – thank you! Goatfoot-milktongue-twinbird now live in my heart-mind and I’ve added Poetry Daily to my blog list. It is the mouth feel-music-rhythm of words that seduces me too. I’m not a writer; I’m a reader and I share your passion for words!

  4. When my husband left me I resented the fact that I was left to clean up all the mess while he (as I imagined in my head) ran off to experience the good life of travel, cafes, sipping red wine, sitting back, and reading poetry. Then as I progressed through the grief process, more and more I turned to poetry to comfort me, even while everything crumbled beneath me. I realised then that poetry was not something you did when you were living the ‘good life’, it was something you did when you were experiencing life. Emphasis on ‘experiencing’.
    Thanks for this post. By the way, I have taken up one of those ideas you sent me, and – believe it or not – I have written a poem. 🙂

    1. I agree, that poetry is something that enhances and deepens our “experience” of life–for me, it heightens my experience in a way that is unlike anything else.
      And I’m really glad to hear you’ve written a poem. Keep writing!!

  5. Oh, Tracy, this is delightful! Poetry was never my passion, but I can feel the passion in this post. Hmm…maybe, as you write travel adventures with recipes, you could also include some of your poetry!

    1. Nice idea. I wonder what my critic would say about that…
      uh-oh, there he goes tsk-tsking and clucking about the inferior quality of my poems and why I should not attempt to embarrass myself by publishing them.
      Does anyone know how to successfully but mercifully do away with an inner critic?

  6. The problem with literary critics is that they are concerned with everything except beauty. I agree they make good reading companions but they sure inhibit the creative process. On the other hand, murdering your inner critic could get really messy!

    1. I agree–
      and beauty is supremely important.
      I was thinking “do away with” somewhat literally, as in, put away, send away, banish. I’m opposed to murder 😉 and not only because it is, indeed, messy.

  7. I can totally relate to the gentleman in your head, although mine is more of the nagging German female kind…
    I miss poetry, as I have missed prose over the last years. I am still reading, but more biographies and history than pure, deep, enjoyable prose or poetry. I know that it is me making room for it that is in the way, so it is easily fixed, but just hasn’t happened…I find my prose in special wines these days. 🙂

      1. I know. But it also is about making time. I’d lie if I said I don’t have the time for it, because I would if I did…well, but there I said it, using the “Konjunktiv”. I guess that is the problem…

        1. It’s alright to let some things slip for a while. We make time for whatever we value the most at the moment. I, for example, have let my language-study slip. Other priorities at the moment.
          But I guess that only works, when we have the strength of will to examine and know what it is that we value most–I no longer value very much other peoples’ opinions on what I should value, but that was a difficult place to arrive at, for people-pleaser me.

  8. What a nice, passionate post, Tracy.
    In the Plato vs Aristotle fray I definitely pick Aristotle’s side – with just one minor (in a way) tweak in what he said: art is what makes humans superior to *other* animals – but Darwin was still centuries to come at that time, so I guess Aristotle was fine saying so! 😉
    Have a great weekend

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