I want to learn all I can, live as wisely as I can, and savor every moment on the journey.
As an English education major in college, I was fortunate to be exposed to the great poets of old—Shakespeare, Donne, Keats, Longfellow, Dickinson, Frost, and so on—and I grew to dearly love their poetry, just as I had loved my books of silly kids’ poems when I was a child and the devotional poetry I discovered when I was a teenager. I’m not a brilliant poet myself, but I adore poetry that awes and resonates with me.
But poetry cannot awe and resonate with me if I cannot understand it. The poetry I’m seeing and hearing these days—in literary journals, on blogs, at writers’ conferences, and in other places as I keep my ears open for poetry—seems to me to be less about compact communication of experience and insight (which is a basic definition of poetry, at least as I was taught it) and more about inventing odd combinations of words.
Almost every poem I read in a literary journal is a poem that I cannot understand, even after multiple read-throughs. The words don’t fit together but seem to have fallen out of a dictionary and collected at random (okay, perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration—at least in some cases). To me, this kind of poetry might as well not be poetry at all, but something like “journal-code-speak” or, as a fellow blogger and lover of Understandable Poetry calls it, “Jabber Wacky.”
As I see it, the current fashion in poetry favors obscurity and weirdness over understandability. Now, maybe I’m just an old fogey at heart, or maybe I’m ignorant—maybe appreciating this kind of poetry is a skill akin to appreciating abstract art. Or maybe I’m just honest about the fact that I can’t see the emperor’s new clothes. I don’t know. But I know that I don’t like this fashion of praising poetry that is basically obscure nonsense and pooh-poohing poetry that actually communicates interesting truth and experience.
Isn’t All Poetry Hard to Understand?
I have heard many people make this claim. I tend to chalk it up to English teachers who failed to walk students step-by-step through some really great poetry, because once you’ve gotten the hang of it, no, not all poetry is hard to understand! It may be harder to understand than a regular paragraph, and it may even require a few read-throughs and a dictionary, but it can be understood, and the effort to understand it is doubly rewarded by the pleasure of understanding the cleverness and meaning.
The first poem to make me literally shiver with delight every time I read it was John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” with its beautiful compass metaphor and exquisitely perfect ending (about a perfect ending). To show you just the last stanza, which finishes the comparison between a mathematical compass and the speaker’s relationship with lover:
“Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.”
This is clear, pleasing, and rich, especially following after the rest of the poem.
Rhyme and Meter ≠ Simplisticness
Most of the great poets from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, if they were alive and writing today, would not get published in the journals of the literary establishment, which sneers at rhyme, meter, and easily understandable verse. If you read the writer’s guidelines for several literary journals, as I have, you’ll find a common theme of criteria: “We only want avant-garde, experimental, and literary poetry. No sentimental, greeting-card, or rhyming verse.”
Listen. Rhyme and meter do not equal simplistic sentimentality. Plenty of deep, rich, and complex poetry uses rhyme and meter to enhance the power of what is being said and aid in the reader’s understanding of the poem.
This is what Robert Frost said about free verse poetry (poetry without rhyme and meter): “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” No rules, no fun. On the other hand, I have read some free verse poems that moved me tremendously (for example, I have sometimes clung to Walt Whitman’s poem “A noiseless, patient spider” as a liferaft). But this was because I could understand them.
Standing Up for Understandable Poetry
This is my manifesto; I’m taking a stand for understandable poetry. I’m also planning other steps: on this blog, I am preparing a “Great Poems” post series, in which I’ll share walk-throughs of some great poems and explain why I love them. (I wanted to be an English teacher, but life derailed me, so maybe I’ll get my fix through blogging!) I may also launch a bigger project in this vein later on.
Poetry can add richness, depth, meaning, and soul-touching music to our lives. But it can’t do that if we can’t understand it.