Thursday, 17 April 2008

Poignant or Pretentious? The Perils of Perusing Poetry

Background: Over on Millennium Hand (that comes with 2 'n's, and highly recommended), there's a nice little discussion started on poetry, starting with MH/Y/Han Solo asking for suggestions on what poetry to read, to which I responded that '[P]oetry works ... but it’s tough to find good poetry on your own - where do you draw the line between the poignant and the pretentious?'. I figured I'd expand on the point here, since it might get too long to put in the comments.

The point I was trying to make was as follows: Good poetry will evoke a strong response from the reader, as will really bad poetry. However, a lot of poetry falls in the middle - sometimes it feels like the poet couldn't put into words all that was going on his/her head, sometimes you feel like you may be reading too much into the poem, and sometimes you're just going 'WTF?'. It gets worse if you don't have a context to place the poem within. It's a bit like trying to taste a wine and figure out if it's something worth drinking, something you don't like right now but should acquire a taste for, or just overpriced plonk.
For example, consider the following poems. The first is a haiku attributed to Jason Strugnell (more on that later):
November evening:
The moon is up, rooks settle,
The pubs are open.

Now consider this poem, 42 by e. e. cummings




g can




the m








Now go back and read the two again. Hold whatever thoughts you have.
Now go read up on Strugnell and cummings. Does your perception of the two poems change?
I don't think the haiku is great, but I bet if I recommended it enthusiastically enough to people, a fair number would just wrinkle their brow and wonder why they didn't get it. Similarly, the cummings poem makes some sense only in the context of his larger work. Otherwise, it's borderline pretentious.
In short, context can make or break a poem. Also, it helps to have someone you can trust recommend stuff to you.
Incidentally, if you're really interested in reading poetry, you could do worse than joining the mailing list at the Wondering Minstrels. Along with poetry, you get context. I managed to keep up with it for a fair while in college, but I eventually fell too far behind in my reading once I started work to really keep up with them. I remember introducing at least one friend to the list in college, and she became a pretty regular contributor after that.
In lieu of a smart and sassy closing statement, here's a poem from the person who created Strugnell, Wendy Cope:
Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis
It was a dream I had last week
And some kind of record seemed vital.
I knew it wouldn't be much of a poem
But I love the title.


  1. Okay. Good stuff. To begin with, all aesthetic arguments must begin with the following: "one man's meat is another man's poison."

    This said, the difficulty in dealing with poetry, or prose, or wine (or any "high art") cannot be bypassed using a pre-determined filter that separates the pretentious from the poignant. Both of these are notions which exist only in the reader's head. The reader has no access to the thoughts and intentions of the poet -- even if the poet later on comments on the poem. Art and the artist are separate. Who is to say that the poet is wrong about what was going through his head while he wrote the poem? Perhaps he forgot. Perhaps he was high.

    One relevant quote is the following: art is never completed, it is merely abandoned.

    Once you divorce the art from the artist, then you are free to interpret the work as you see fit. There is no correct interpretation. Even if there were, a correct interpretation may not be as pleasurable as the incorrect subjective interpretation.

    Here's another way to look at this: what perils do you speak of? Not liking something? Why is that bad?

    And is getting recommendations from critics or friends such a bad thing? The impetus to give something a chance must come from somewhere, right?

    I liked both the haiku and the pretentious cummings verse. Hehe. One man's pretention is another man's daring experiment.

  2. Confession: the 'Peril' was there just for alliteration of a sort.

    I wasn't talking about a pre-determined filter, although some classification can help you make the best use of your time. If you are taking the time and effort to read poetry, you would like that investment to be worthwhile. I have no problems with recommendations - I think that's probably the best way to figure out what poetry you really like, as opposed to poetry you merely need to develop a taste for. A bit like wine, if I may extend the analogy. Trying to go off and read poetry on your own without any guidance, especially if, like me, you did CBSE where they specialize in picking up a poet's worst work to teach, can be fraught with a lot of disappointment, which in turn can cause you to give up on poetry.

    While I can divorce the artist from the work in the case of fiction, I find that harder to do in the case of poetry, precisely because poetry is supposed to be about self-expression (except for epic poetry and the like, which anyway reads more like fiction).

    To repeat the plug - if you have the time, the Wondering Minstrels mailing list is fantastic - having someone share a poem and explain context really helps to appreciate it better. You also get a lot more obscure poets/poems, that you would miss otherwise.

  3. Hmm. "Trying to go off and read poetry on your own..." I figured that the internet often serves as a teacher and guide. One can always run through famous poets, and try to spend time analyzing what exactly made them appealing.

    With art the is no guarantee that the "investment" is "worthwhile" -- the same goes for a movie or a meal at a new restaurant. Once you know you like poetry, you should be able to invest time without some sort of 100% hit-rate. Besides, reading most one-page poems takes very little time.

    Perhaps one needs to control expectation. Poetry is not always bangs and whistles. Think of it as a walk in a garden -- you might like to call that an investment of time and effort, but the payoff is really up to you.

    Where did this line come from: "poetry is supposed to be about self-expression"? It may feel more personal than a novel, but I think all art forms involve self-expression. But again, one has no access to any "self" other than one's own, so there is no metric for comparison or confirmation.

    One can only ask: did this express something to me? You could go so far as to say that the biographies and analyses actually alter the art itself, by supplementing the soil into which it gets planted.

    (I'm just using ideas from deconstuction, really.)

  4. FAQs on Poetry, courtesy of Slate magazine. Not really related to anything I've said, but I've been watching the first IPL match and I'm too lazy to bother typing out a riposte.
    I think the last line of the article might well apply to me. I don't mind, really.

  5. Not a bad attempt at all. And if serious/gloomy poetry isn't your thing, that's no big deal. No one can like everything.