May 24, 2010

the poetry problem, part ii: picking up where you left off.

Our first experiences with poetry, for those of us fortunate enough to have been children sometime after Where the Sidewalk Ends got published, came from Shel Silverstein--he introduced us to the silly, funny sing-song things our language could do, in such a way that anyone who uses language can appreciate. This is a fundamental characteristic of the accessible poetry we are trying to discover here: It should offer something to anyone who uses language, and help them experience language in an unusual way. The exaggeration in Silverstein's work appeals to the mountain-sized imaginations that children carry around with them, and the rhyminess allows them to play with the sounds of language almost separate from meaning, which is a wonderful way to explore when you are a little person whose vocabulary is expanding exhaustively.

Sometime between Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout and today, you stopped thinking of poetry as a fun and approachable way to enjoy language. So let's pick up where you left off and explore some smart, funny, poignant people who don't expect you to obtain an MFA before reading their work.

Billy Collins and Poetry 180.

Billy Collins is an American poet who used to be Poet Laureate of the United States, and while he held that title he did a wonderful thing for poetry and for young people by creating the Poetry 180 project. He compiled a list of 180 poems that he thought would speak to young people, and these poems were read, one per day, over school intercoms during homeroom. His work matches the humble, thoughtful tone of his voice, making it a joy to hear him read his own work, which you can do here and here. His poem entitled, "Introduction to Poetry" speaks to the issues we're trying to work out here.

Ron Koertge.

The universal experience of awkwardness, adolescent or otherwise, is treated with kindness and humor in Ron Koertge's work. The reader is made to feel comfortable about his/her own awkward moments, and perhaps even laugh at them. Some of my favorites of his poems are "Lonely as a Leftover Thumb," which appeared in In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet's Portable Workshop by Steve Kowitt; and "The Poem Enters a Beauty Pageant," which I can't find online. He also writes young adult fiction, and you can find books of his poetry on Amazon.

Richard Brautigan.

Trout Fishing in America was an important discovery for me when I was in high school, and The Pill Vs. The Spring Hill Mine Disaster is a book of Brautigan's poems that comes in the same volume. His work is silly and beautiful, often at the same time, and reading his poetry made me consider some of the strange things that language can do: He articulates truth using absurdity to get there. Enjoy "Your Catfish Friend" and maybe take a look at some of his prose, too.

I hope this is helpful! Go read some poems and see if any of them make you laugh. Click around the Poetry 180 site next time you're bored at work. Let some poems bore you and some poems jump out at you without judging the experience. See if you can articulate what's working for you and what isn't.

May 14, 2010

the poetry problem, part i.

In honor of National Poetry Month, and mostly just because I thought it would be a fun writing exercise, I posted 140-character poems on Twitter in April. I tried to post one each day, but this was my first experience making my poetry public and I didn't want to post mediocre poems on days when nothing good came. The format had an effect similar to attempting haiku, in that the language has to be really concentrated in order to make an impact in so little space. I also found that the nature of the medium impacted the kind of writing I did for this project: the poems passed through the Twitter feeds of my followers pretty quickly, and I tried to write about moments that felt just as ephemeral.

A happy consequence of this writing was that friends saw the poems, and this provoked conversations about poetry that may not have happened otherwise. An upsetting consequence was that most of the people who talked to me about poetry were not generally readers of poetry, though some of them wished they were.

This is the depressing thing about poetry: Almost no one thinks that poetry is for them. And that's wrong! Poetry is for you. It's written for you, especially. It's just that there are some barriers coming between you and poetry that you haven't figured out how to get around yet. Let's work on that.

The first problem is that poets don't even read poetry anymore. Are you listening, poets who do not read poetry? Good. You should be ashamed of yourselves. Poetry is not all about you, this is not the you show, where you get to put your work out there and expect people to read it and pay attention to it when you aren't even up on what your peers are writing. Go pick up an anthology--a recent one--and read some poems. Subscribe to a journal. When you like a poem, write down the name of the poet and take it with you to a bookstore. If they haven't stocked the book, ask them to order it. They might order extra copies, and then the next time a forlorn teenager is browsing the poetry section, bam! you just introduced them to a provocative up-and-coming poet who might make being a teenager more bearable for them. Problem solved.

So that was an easy one. Next time, I'll tackle something harder. I'm invested in getting you to read poems, because I think reading poetry is truly an enriching hobby that will make your life better.

Until then, go read my poem, which was recently published in Chaparral.