Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Let me first say that there are poets and poems I really really like.
Here's a short list of poets who immediately and without prompting come to mind:
Whitman, Robert Lowell, Emily Dickinson, Randall Jarrell, Robert Frost, Ai, Wisława Szymborska, Homer, Francois Villon, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Elizabeth Bishop, Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert (we share a first name!), Auden, T. S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Karl Shapiro, Philip Levine, Sharon Olds, Allen Ginsberg, Eavan Boland, Donald Hall, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Most of the poets on the list are dead, and the ones that aren't are getting along.
I'm not sure what that means except maybe it takes a while to figure out who you really like and who you really don't like. Poets and poems grow on you, or maybe you grow into them.
I've got an essay online about my relationship to the poetry of Emily Dickinson that talks about that. When I was a student I thought that what she was trying to tell me through her poems was pretty miserable, useless. I said, in fact, "They should feed this stuff [her poems] to the cows." I don't feel that way about her anymore. In fact, she's in the list above. Here's the link that will take you to my essay about what changed my mind. It's listed under essays in the menu on the left of the screen that will come up. Also, there's a poem there called "Midnight" about what I thought about her when I was a student: http://www.eiu.edu/~agora/May05/Guzall.htm
I've been thinking about and reading the poets in the above list for a while and I can say without equivocation that I really really like them.
I think that one of the other things my list of poets says about my taste in poetry is that I like serious poets, poets who tend to take a more or less gloomy view of things, see the dark side, the Darth Vader side of things.
So what's Whitman doing on the list?
Well, he's got that dark side too. It's there with his sunny side. He's a man who knows about the blues. You get this in a lot of his poems, but one I like a lot is one that's not read much. It's buried in the half a thousand pages that make up the later editions of Leaves of Grass. It's a poem called "This Compost." In it, Whitman talks about the wind that rises from the "sour dead" and licks his naked skin.
Yeah, Whitman has his gloomy side.
I like poets who talk about everyday things too, tools and hammers, car parts, branches and limbs of trees, the way a head turns when a person feels too much sun on the back of his neck.
I used to teach poetry writing, and I was always telling students to make sure that their poems had everyday things in them, things like hands and arms, feet and lips in them. I like poems that are crisp in that way. John Milton didn't make my list, but he was a guy who knew something about feet. You read Paradise Lost, and you hear him talk over and over about the sound feet make when they step on grass or what it's like to step on something you're not used to stepping on.
Someone asked me recently how I know what is good poetry and what isn't. There is the long story of what is good and the short story of what is good. The long story involves criteria and personal biography, the short story involves a simple statement. I'll give you the short story. What I feel is "good" is what touches me. All of the poets I mentioned above touched me. And that's why I read them and continue to read them.
This is getting too long so I'll just mention one other thing about the poets I like. I don't know if all of them are like this, but enough of them are so I'll mention it here. They write long sentences. I like the rhythm that you get when a sentence goes on and on and on, and you don't know when it will end but you're sure it will, and you're sure also that when you do get to the ending you'll feel exhausted but happy.
Whitman writes sentences like that, and Frost and Ai do too. Not always but enough of the time.
I'm sure that there are other things that make me like the poems I like (a sense of a personal "I" is one), but I think I'll save that for some other time.
This piece originally appeared in a blog called Poetry Worth Reading that my friend and terrific poet Marty Williams did. Here's a link to it: Click.