What is Poetry and Why Do We Care?

Austin Duck

“What is poetry” is a question I’m asked a lot and one that I can’t answer. In fact, everywhere I go, every job interview I have, every time someone asks “what’s your degree in,” they follow up with some permutation of that question. You see, I’ve got a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry (along with a few other useless degrees) and, expectedly, I’m constantly bouncing between jobs, looking for the next big thing which requires near-constant explanation of how I got here and why I made the choices I did. And my god, you should see the looks on their faces (unless someone in their family too has made this… choice) when I start stammering and trying to explain myself: pity, embarrassment, amusement that an adult would proudly (sort of) admit that he spent years (YEARS) reading poems, writing about poems, and, most questionably (because academia and the idea of a PhD still hold some cultural capital) learning to write them himself… It’s a dark time to be a poet (though I suspect that, outside of Eastern Europe [where poets are celebrated] it probably always has been).

Not everyone, though, is totally unreceptive to the choice of poetry. For some, poetry still holds its place as a kind of epicenter for literary bad-boy-ness (after all, poets work in shorter bursts of clarity and don’t require the same kind of discipline as someone writing something long-form that is either narratively or argumentatively coherent): hard drinkers, sexers (is that a thing?), druggers and live-r’s that occupy that very thin line between intellectual and indigent, the Jim Morrisons of the not-quite-so-fucking-stupid, the arty guy or gal who, even though they manage social media and blogging at a major corporation (guilty), still has a deeply mysterious and deeply sexual wilderness in their heart.

For others, poetry itself has a kind of heroic capital. It allows one to project the image of hyper intelligence (just look at the number of poets who win MacArthur genius grants and you’ll see that poetry and physics seem to fish from the same pond) and a kind of bohemian “casting off” of economics, of choosing to pursue “art” when really you should have gone into investment banking but this makes you more pure. It sounds fucking stupid, doesn’t it? It is.

The trouble, for me, of people believing these myths—of the poetic bad boy and/or the self-sacrificing genius—is that it creates a cultural expectation of the “poet” as a thing to which young, narcissistic, self-righteous fucking losers (guilty) flock to prove themselves the next Rilke, the next wild Jack Gilbert, the next (ugh) Charles Bukowski, and, in doing so, they build a scene. They themselves (with all of their ideas) create an idea of poetry, promulgate a notion of poetry as sexy or smart, and, in doing so, recreate the culture of poetry.

However, that’s not to say that I’m here to bemoan it; to believe that the state of anything isn’t in flux is naive and prescriptive and hey, I forgot to put on underwear this morning so I’m probably not the best person to make a totalizing statement what is right or wrong for poetry as a whole. I say it’s a trouble for me because it so deeply complicates what poetry is, really. If I had to give a totally uninformative (but accurate) definition, I might say that it’s the silently agreed-upon, written production of a continuously changing group of half-educated, half-myth-drunk twenty-somethings with progressively more impressive resumes continuously reinventing something so fundamental to humans that it existed before God. But that wouldn’t be entirely right.

Sure, that’s the bottom of the scene right now (if you want to think about it hierarchically), but it tells nothing about the multitudes of unpaid apprenticeships with those “living masters”—old people writing poetry who their peer-group agrees is writing the best poetry—of the unpaid publications used to build reputations used to leverage shitty-paying jobs so that one day you and your group can sit among the “living masters” all while under the cold scrutiny of critics who constantly remind you that there are dead masters too, that you’ll never approach them, because history, because craft, because they didn’t get paid to watch Twitter for 8 hours a day while wishing for a different life.

And even that isn’t exactly right when you consider the fact that poetry, for all of its shared resources, doesn’t have a single, unified community; there are groups upon groups, each with slightly different aesthetic- and philosophical-projects, and then there are those who aren’t, exactly, part of groups, who have participated—to some degree—in various groups and projects, have gone through various apprenticeships (or not), who read books that are recommended by friends, or old colleagues, or whose covers and back-blurbs and first poems look appealing at a bookstore (though this is becoming less and less an option) and each one of these people, each one of these groups, is making a case -through-example of what poetry is, can be, does, or (sometimes) what it really shouldn’t do.

So what is poetry (or, really, more accurately, what is American poetry [because each culture has its own organic process for bringing up poets, its own poetics, etc.])? I don’t know. I used to ask my students this question on their final exams just to see their faces fill with terror like mine does each time I’m asked. When asked this question, I usually answer with something along the lines of:

an empathy machine, a text that appears to be written in lines but which actually is a dramatic rendering of a scene, no matter how brief, when the speaker of the poem (usually the “I”) interacts with a specific problem, usually in the realms of nature, language, memory, or culture, outside the self and, in that interaction, is changed, though it’s not enough to tell the reader that the speaker has changed, the mechanics have to be there, the change has to be structural, linguistic, imagistic (made with images), sonic (made with sound), so that, by the end of the poem the audience has had the same experience, their very brain has processed the same images presented in the same way, heard the same sounds, stumbled over the same sentence constructions, and thought the same sentences in the same order so that the speaker and the audience are, for a second, the same person, the other, so that the reader is not confirmed in their own experience but is instead forced into a new one, understanding, yes, both intellectually and emotionally, thinking and feeling as another person. Oh and did I mention that poems “should” almost never go where you think they’re going, that they contain surprise for the reader, the writer, there must be a ghost you didn’t know come to inhabit the body you’re only starting to get a sense that you’re looking at?

I do tend to get sort of breathless (even in writing, apparently) when writing about “what poetry is” because imagine that last paragraph taking place in a single instant; imagine that you were able to achieve what I’ve just described (either as a writer or a reader) and now think about the community differences I’ve described above. To say specifically “what poetry is” is impossible and even to say what it should do is pretty dubious.

In the end, my take on it (above) will yield a pretty classical American/English poem (or, at least, I think that it will), but won’t account for more than 5% of what’s been produced, what you will search through—line by line for some organizing pattern (because poetry is fundamentally [and equally unhelpfully] patterned language).

So why do it at all (reading or writing)? Aside from the fact that some people will think you’re a sexy genius and others will bathe you with counter-cultural social capital, why?

Fundamentally, the interaction of poetry will get you closer to another person’s mind, more fully engaged in empathy, understanding, learning, compassion, joy, sadness, recognition, than literally anything else on the planet. Music for your ears, visual arts for your eyes, writing, particularly poetry which is so often concerned with the instantaneous, the momentous, for wherever your mind and your humanity mix.

For more equally incomprehensible definitions of poetry, go here.

Image source: The Guardian

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