Poetry For Morons

Thanks for reminding us.

Allen Ginsberg being… well, Allen Ginsberg.

Don’t worry, you’re in good company. I am – fortunately enough – an ‘absolute moron’ too.

I only started reading poetry for pleasure this Spring, actually – although I’ve written it for much longer as a tweenager, under the guise of ‘lyricz’ (ignoring common knowledge that I can’t actually sing and never intended to).

Most of us haven’t really approached it outside school hours, and since it’s rather a niche thing nowadays, once we’ve dumped the satchel and scruff-handed notes behind, most people actually have no clue how to go about it.

So, pretend you’re me. You’ve accidently stepped into a way-too-up-market-for-you, beachwood floored bookshop by chance, smooth jazz slurring outside a nearby radio (count the number of black people actually in the shop, I dare you), and picked up – inadvertently – a copy of Ginsberg because the cover looked cool. You leave as quickly as you can before someone noticed your jeans had holes in them.

You get home. You open it. It’s full of poems. You know how to read (please tell me you know how to read), and you know how to read books – in sizeable chunks, sittings, whilst getting involved with the narrative itself. But poetry? Well.

 

I’ve wondered to myself about this barrier. I think there’s some misconceptions and mystique about poetry which means that it remains a niche when it perhaps shouldn’t be. So, let’s take them apart:-

 

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1. I have to analyse poetry to enjoy it.

I must be part of the insane minority that actually enjoyed picking up a pencil and scribbling notes over poetry pages as a kid, picking out polysyllabic terminology such as assonance, epithets, polysyllabic, metrical feet, enjambment, polysyllabic. Maybe I’m just a sadist. I prefer the term ‘word mechanic’.

Needless to say my first instinct to Ginsberg was to dissect him. Tear him to pieces. But in doing so I missed a lot of fun that comes from the surface reading of poetry – listening the how the words bounce and flick about on your tongue, watching them slam into each other and spin backwards:-

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…

Ignoring how canonical Ginsberg’s Howl has become in modern poetry and its endless parodies, and ignoring the vast swathes of context, melodrama, meaning which have perhaps transcended it in its original incarnation – ignoring all that pretention – there is a lot of fun simply to be found in the sheer exuberance of the language, its connotations, the pictures it paints, the emotions just on hearing the words without really recognising meaning behind them… Ginsberg, as evidenced, really isn’t a poet who writes by halves – although if you want more minimalistic writing, there is plenty out there.

An exercise I found myself doing at times was to lie back on by bed at midnight, Ginsberg held aloft in my left hand above my head, and swish through as many poems – or even excerpts of poems – aloud as possible. Part of the fun is just watching words dance about in weird ways. Poetry is often a lot of abstract wordplay and verseplay – emphasis on play.

It’s pissing about with language. And you don’t require pencilling remarks for that at all, to enjoy playing.

 

2. I have to understand poetry completely to enjoy it.

If prose is a long, winding river, starting with a spring, that eventually leads you to an ocean, with the joy being in the journey along the way and the small insights as to what lurks beneath the glimmering waters, then poetry is a natural well, a ravine. You can’t see to the bottom of it.

You could go diving for miles and die because of the crushing levels of water pressure and still not get to the bottom of it. You may never know for sure what’s actually kept down there.

You know what? That’s totally cool.

Part of poetry is being comfortable with the unknown. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable. You are not going to understand every nuance and technicality of a poem on one reading. That would be boring – you might understand what’s in a muddy puddle but you can’t return to it several times and expect to find anything different in terms of content.

Bear in mind that this doesn’t mean – for the writers out there – that poetry has to be incomprehensible to hold depth and flavour. It’s not a puzzle. It’s about conveying something in an interesting way.

A good poem – regardless of complication or how many layers you toss about it – will provoke thought or feeling enough for a reader to return to it again and again to attempt to re-experience it and see it from different perspective. A good way, actually of trying to get a handle of each line and each phrase and how it comes together is actually learning something by heart – line by line, one at a time.

Some poems might simply just be pure ‘play’, and little more than experimenting with emotions and ideas conjured up by that play – but even still, further treasures, witty asides, jabs you missed, references, new ideas – can be found on re-reading. If something’s a tad more ‘difficult’ (which doesn’t translate into better, regardless of what you’re sold), and you don’t know what exactly a poem’s trying to do, it’s no crime.

The journey in poetry, I believe, is not in following the river, but repeated dives into the pool to find for the pearls you missed out first time around. And part of the joy is the journey of re-reading and finding something new each time.

 

3. Poetry has one interpretation only/Poetry has every interpretation under the sun.

Well, that’s just daft, isn’t it?

A lot of poets put in loaded words all the time – deliberate double meanings – meaning that there’s an extra dimension to the original meaning. Sounds much less complicated than it actually is.

Double Entendre being a prime example which plenty of rock and hip-hop songs have mastered over the years (and sadly plenty have not). Simple things like running motifs – mentions, of say, clocks and datelines and time – can add information to what seems like a different picture literally.

And sometimes it’s ambiguous. Sometimes there is no ‘right answer’ in regards to the poem. And that’s something you have to learn to embrace and become comfortable with. Poets view their work in different ways: some ask questions, and some answer them.

Which does bring us to the other side of the coin. Whilst some poets embrace vagueness, others don’t:-

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

Phillip Larkin’s manner here is rather direct, with a smattering of humour. Poetry often puts people off through its supposedly ‘artsy fartsy’ persona, but that avoids the fact that a lot of matter-of-a-fact poetry exists (and can also be filled with depth – certainly, the tone of the poet doesn’t necessarily speak for the content).

Often a lot of poems will have a firm direction – and a few ideas floating about it – although it’s incorrect to say that things are about mutant space octopi when they are obviously not. Art might be subjective but that doesn’t necessarily mean all interpretations hold equal weight.

 

 

So, to briefly recap:-

1. I have to analyse poetry to enjoy it.

2. I have to understand poetry completely to enjoy it.

3. Poetry has one interpretation only/Poetry has every interpretation under the sun.

is all bullshit. Poetry is accessible, modern, and everywhere (what do you think music is full of if not for bad poetry?) – it’s a case of finding poets and styles you like and enjoy and tearing away old misconceptions. Because ultimately it can be fun and rewarding; it enriches the soul. And that, in a nutshell, is poetry for morons. Morons have souls to be enriched too, y’know.

  • Fiachra

    Excellent article Beth. The idea of fully understanding any form of art, whether poetry, fiction or drama, from every possible angle or perspective, seems rather boring to be honest. One thing I always loved about the Simpsons in the 1990s was how you could watch an episode several times, and always find a new joke.

  • Beth

    Someone on the forum posted a response I quite like:-

    “One thing I’d have to say your second point would be that in deep poetry, one has to soak themselves in the poem not just dive deep, but sometimes soak at a shallow level as well. Reread some lines over and over, reread the poem over and over, find all the little tricks the poet stuck in there.”

  • Isaiah

    I agree mostly. Poetry is a lot more than British poets from the 1800′s, despite what modern English teachers would have you believe. It’s downright easy to write (not necessarily easy to write WELL), and it’s lovely to find your own style. It’s simply a lot more casual and carefree than most people perceive it to be.

    Ditch your stigmas.

  • Ofdensen

    I wrote a poem about this article

    Beth wrote some words about poetry
    and I wrote some words about those words
    And if I write words about words of words
    then fuck this I can’t write poetry good bye

  • Crouching Moron

    my great trouble
    with Poetry
    It’s not presented
    logically

    depth of
    meaning
    might mean a lot
    mean something
    else
    to me or you

    but If I Cannot
    Understand It
    why should I care of
    roses red or violets
    blue

    prose has a funny
    way
    of getting to the point
    it can be florid
    without being torrid
    without requiring
    a Joint

    so why do poets write like this?

    Because they’re pretentious asses, that’s why. Poetry would bug me far less if people put more effort into writing it logically, with capitalization and punctuation and not putting single words out on a line–and what the hell’s with that thing where you jam a lone line at the end after everything else has trailed off?–and following some sort of steady meter. To sum up, same approximate beef I have with a lot of really arsty trad-writers: really weird/inefficient communication.

    • Isaiah

      e.e. cummings said that the way poetry looks on the page is just as important as the actual words. Plus, in most cases, the capitalization/punctuation or lack thereof has significant. Single words on a line can be for emphasis or rhythm. The lone line is hard to generalize, but I usually see a big, rushing stream of consciousness building up to a sudden cutoff (the lone line). It sometimes has a more profound effect.

  • Testing

    This is really interesting! Thank you.

    • Guest

      I know right? I’m so enlightened!

      • Testing

        Yay! We’re enlightened together!