Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Trouble With Poetry

I've never really gotten into poetry, which is weird. I mean, I love just about everything having to do with writing, and I read voratiously from many different genres. Yet my exposure to and interest in poetry has only come from classes in high school and college, when I basically had no choice...

I thought of this today while hearing Billy Collins, a former Poet Laureate of this country, on Fresh Air. His perspective was wonderful, his manner gentle and quiet, and his verse captivating. He posits that all poetry centers either on the joy of living or impending death, which is a canny observation indeed... I liked him a lot, though I hate to admit, I didn't know who he was, nor had I heard him when he was the Poet Laureate in '01 through '03. His perspective got me thinking, trying to recall what poets I actually knew, other than simply paid lip service to, and I realized there were none. Yeah, I've read Howl, and some Gary Snyder, Longfellow, S. T. Coleridge, and decided that Buchowski was a dirty old man, but again - All that had been forced by classes; the opinions hadn't evolved of my own volition. So why the reticence? Why the lack of interest?

Then I remembered writing some poetry in high school, and rather liking it. A couple of my pieces ended up in a very nicely published coffee table compendium of our artistic output - poems and short stories beside paintings, and stuff like that. One of my friends was a very talented artist, who probably had a future in it at that point. A bunch of his stuff was in there too.

After it came out, we were at dinner at their house for some occasion or another, and my friend's dad, out of the blue, stands up and announces that some of my poetry was in the book, and then starts to read it - All of this done in a sardonic, mocking tone of voice that, to some degree, shocked literally everyone in the room. A stunned silence followed his reading, the last line of my poem rolling into the emptiness. No one was more stunned, or pissed off than I was. I was 16 or 17, so I didn't say anything; nor did anyone else...

I realized that, to this day, I believe he did it because he thought that his kid was a real artist and my stuff was crap; it didn't belong there, so he decided to belittle it, and me, semi-publicly. He is, by the way, one of the most arrogant, rude, dismissive, and self-centered people I've ever met, even despite this little interlude. After high school, his kid had a breakdown and never recovered: He's schizophrenic, probably messed up worse by the Lithium they punched into folks with that disease back then, and is barely able to survive on his own. He still paints a little, but it seems that, as with many fine artists, his genius rode a fine balance that tipped over when he did.

And I never wrote or read poetry again. I'm not whining, mind you, I've just come to realize that, in retrospect, my avoidance of it is tied to this series of events. Funny how such a revelation will come up after, what, 30 years or so. I was talking with my mom not long ago, and she mentioned them. I asked if he was still the arrogant ass he'd always been, and she allowed that he was, indeed.

And so today's Fresh Air was both a reminder of an uncomfortable piece of my past, and a realization that denying myself a wonderful medium because of a traumatic adolescent incident was foolish indeed. Screw him. I'm going out and buying Billy's latest book, and may it lead to an exploration of many more poets, old and new. And I'd better get at it, before the dire time glimpsed in Collins' namesake poem of his new collection comes about. What time is that, you ask? Let Billy tell it:

The trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mother into the dewy grass
And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world
and there is nothing left to do
but quietly close our notebooks
and sit with our hands folded on our desks.

1 comment:

David C. said...

I heard Billy Collins once on the radio. He said something like, "I tell people who study English in college they are majoring in death." I am paraphrasing, but you get the idea.