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A Rant on Poetry

I’ll never forget the smug cynicism I felt last spring when my professor handed us Ezra Pound’s poem “Papyrus.” The poem is as follows:

Spring . . . . . . .

Too long . . . . . .

Gongula . . . . . .

 

I quickly scribbled my own version to show how much artistic talent I thought a poem like this took. My version went something like this:

 

Summer . . . . . . .

Too short . . . . . .

Arugula . . . . . .

 

Unfortunately, my professor overheard the laughter of my two classmates, and had me read my creation to the whole class. I was slightly embarrassed, but I also felt justified in expressing my frustration with modern poetry.

Poetry and I have had a love-hate relationship since I entered college. Before college, I was pretty much unaware that any form of poetry existed beyond your standard rhythm and meter based creation. At this point, I loved poetry. I loved hearing the alliteration and cadence of the Edgar Allan Poe type, and I even felt that I had a knack for writing verse, evidenced by an occasional Facebook note (remember when people wrote those?).

Then, in college, I submitted one of my rhymed masterpieces to the school literary journal, and I heard crickets. When the journal was printed, I found to my bewilderment and dismay that there was not one rhymed poem in the whole book. As I read through the poems, anger started to fester as I realized that I didn’t “get” any of the poems. The word choice seemed random, there seemed to be no unifying theme or structure, but here they were, shouting at me from their cozy black and white abode that they had been good enough to print, while mine hadn’t. I felt the like the awkward outsider not let in on an inside joke.

Even after being slapped with the reality that rhyme was no longer in vogue in the literary world, but was rather something sequestered to cheesy Hallmark cards and children’s books, I refused to give it up. My sophomore year, I started dabbling in free verse, just to see if it was all it was cracked up to be, but I remained loyal to my quatrains. In my creative writing class, we had the chance to read a sample of our work to the class, and I chose to share the rhymed poem that I had put my heart and soul into, and a free verse poem that hadn’t taken me more than a few sittings to write. This is what happened:

I read my rhymed poem to the class, and when I finished, my professor gave me a confused look, as if he really had hated it, but was trying not to show it. He gave me a haphazard tip on how I could improve, but it was clear he was having difficulty showing how much he didn’t like the poem. To get an idea of what the style was like, here’s the last verse:

So bring back color, vibrancy to black and white review,

Define the wine, the bread; refresh with glimpses of the new.

Come break the barricades to meaning guarded by the lies,

And shatter repetition with your wordless loving eyes.

A little shaken, I moved onto my next poem, which was about growing up as a magician’s daughter. Here’s an excerpt from this poem:

On those long car trips home through summery Maine

I leaned my cheek on the sheer glass

following powdered sugar stars on walls of navy ice.

Or if my brother was there

we’d giggle in our late night childish joy,

we were made up characters from a different world

Just a simple description of my childhood, I thought, nothing too special. But after I finished this poem, my professor’s expression completely changed. He loved the poem, and even said he wished he had come up with the phrase “powdered sugar stars.”

I started writing more free verse poetry although I was secretly suspect of its elevated state being a hoax, and my poems started getting into the college literary journal. Although I did work hard on my poems, they still took me less time to write than my rhymed poetry, and I remained simultaneously exhilarated that I had gotten my foot in the door of this literary society that I still didn’t understand, yet critical and disgusted by the poems that I still couldn’t get anything out of.

My poems were free verse now, but they were clear and specific. I viewed my goal as a poet as conveying an idea or emotion with a precision that prose couldn’t give. These other poems seemed to find joy in obscuring meaning.

The more I talked with English majors about my quandary, the more I realized that as a whole, they approached poetry differently than I did. For me, if a poem didn’t “make sense,” the author was doing a disservice to the reader, but for them, poetry wasn’t always supposed to make sense. You weren’t supposed to take apart a poem like you were disassembling an appliance, otherwise, you would kill it. Point taken, I reasoned.  But then, how do you distinguish between a quality poem and a shoddy poem?

Is this

a poem

simply because I

have forced it

into six

neat lines?

I imagined the renowned poets of the 20th century guffawing over beers about how they’d tricked critics into believing their lazy scratchings had artistic value. Williams Carlos Williams would say with giddy tears in his eyes, “and then I wrote about how ‘everything depends on a red wheelbarrow’! And they loved it!”

Beckett would slap his knee heartily and Pound would give Williams a fist bump, and they would continue their poetic scam to the end of their days.

And then there’s the case of Billy Collins, the “everyman’s poet” of the late 20th and early 21st century. Collins said “I think a lot of readers are frustrated with the obscurity and self indulgence of most poetry. I try very assiduously to court the reader and engage him. I am interested more in a public following than a critical one” [http://www.cprw.com/Hilbert/collins2.htm].  “America’s most popular poet” has repeatedly proven his finesse in fulfilling this goal; take this poem for example:

Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep A Gun In The House

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.

He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark

that he barks every time they leave the house.

They must switch him on on their way out.

 

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.

I close all the windows in the house

and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast

but I can still hear him muffled under the music,

barking, barking, barking,

 

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,

his head raised confidently as if Beethoven

had included a part for barking dog.

 

When the record finally ends he is still barking,

sitting there in the oboe section barking,

his eyes fixed on the conductor who is

entreating him with his baton

 

while the other musicians listen in respectful

silence to the famous barking dog solo,

that endless coda that first established

Beethoven as an innovative genius.

This poem is both witty and accessible to the general population. I definitely didn’t feel I was being excluded from an inside joke. Still, I have to wonder what exactly it is that makes this a poem. If you took away the visual structure and made it into a paragraph, it would read just like a fun piece of prose.

So readers, these are my questions: first, what makes a poem a poem? And secondly, what makes a poem a good poem? Am I justified in my frustration with modern and post-modern poetry, or is there something I’m missing? If so, please let me in on the inside joke. In the meantime, I’m going to go write a villanelle.

 

 

 

A Lyrical Life

I’ve never been able to understand why my dad listens to oldies. To me, they all sound like the same guitar-driven rock with scratchy-voiced singers, and I would much prefer silence to the voices of Bob Dylan and Thin Lizzy. My friends have never been able to understand why I listen to Russian techno-pop. To them, it all sounds like the same foreign blabber set to an overly excited electronic beat. Oldies mean nothing to me, and Russian music means nothing to my friends, but to my dad and me, our favorite songs consist of so much more than melodies and refrains.

It was the first time I was away from my parents on my mission trip to Russia. I watched wide-eyed out the car window as twenty-one year old Natasha whipped through the foreign city with three other Americans and me in tow. This unsupervised adventure led by my newfound Russian friend was the first time I discovered the freedom of being on my own. As we sped past wild drivers, poorly-fashioned carnival rides and broken beer bottles on the side of the road, the booming of syncopated Russian pop shot adrenaline into my thirteen year-old veins. When I returned to America with only a CD and a photo album as relics of my time there, I found myself clinging to Russian music to return to the raw freedom of speeding through that foreign city with the windows rolled down.

I loved those poorly written songs because they were keys to the past that I had full control over; with the push of a button or click of a mouse, I could transport myself to my first adventures in Russia.

But I have found that although songs wield the power to transplant us to a dimension outside the present, we cannot always trust that this dimension accurately reflects the reality of the past.  So often, in my desire for my story to be organized in a singable box, I conflate my actual experiences with the lyrics on the radio.

I don’t think Taylor Swift is so successful because her lyrics are unique; I believe she is successful because her lyrics appeal to the desire for a neatly wrapped understanding of both the joy and chaos of relationships. Without fail, her songs show only one perspective of the relationship, and as we belt out “I knew you were trouble,” and “You’re just another picture to burn,” it is easy to lose sight of the fact that in every relational breakdown, there are two sides to the story, two sides that are usually more complicated than three minutes can do justice to.  And as we get caught up in the grandiosity of the radio blaring a song that makes everything seem so clear-cut, we simplify our lives; we shave off the bumps and inconsistencies and paradoxes.

(Although I’m often tempted to believe that this song was written just for me…)

Sometimes, though, this simplification of reality has its benefits. There is a mysterious unity in the singing of the National Anthem; Americans of all political persuasions and beliefs are connected by something larger than themselves. After the National Anthem is sung, fans at a baseball game will inevitably split into the rival groups of Red Sox versus Yankees, but for that one minute before the game, not one person will dispute that the ground on which they are standing is “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

My study abroad group sophomore year was full of  wonderful people, with whom many I am still close friends with. However, many of my groupmates found that their personalities mixed as well as matches and dynamite.  After a tense semester full of misunderstanding and hurt, most of us thought we would be glad to part ways when the trip came to an end.  On our way to the airport though, someone suggested that we sing “All-Star.” Home seemed closer than ever now, and it seemed fitting to celebrate with a good old American song that we all grew up with.  As we belted out, “Hey now, you’re an all-star,” a sense of mutual understanding took over our cramped little van and outshouted our differences, relieving the four-month long tension. And for just that moment, no one would deny that we were friends.

A well-loved song doesn’t only have the power to unify people, but to unify experiences, giving a sense of steadiness as life changes. On a bumpy Russian road as a slightly chubby twelve year-old, scared to death about the mission trip that lay ahead, I held a silver Walkman and listened to lyrics that would become one of those steady comforts. The gentle voice of Erin O’Donnell reassured me with the words, “And I know that someday soon, you’ll make sense of this despair, and your love, your love, will get me there.”

Since that night ten years ago, this song has been what I like to call a “Bethel.” In Genesis 28, Jacob lies down to sleep at an unknown place after fleeing his homeland, and he receives a vision from God. Upon awakening, Jacob falls down in worship and christens the place “Bethel,” meaning “house of God,” saying “God was in this place and I did not know it.” He pours oil on the rock he had used as his pillow, anointing the place as a reminder of the faithfulness of Yahweh.  Likewise, that Erin O’Donnell song is a milestone that I come back to again and again when I need to be reminded of God’s faithfulness in my own life.

C.S. Lewis describes the longing for transcendence, for intimacy beyond what this world allows, with the German word sehnsucht. Certain songs evoke this sehnsucht, and while on one hand they point us to the Creator, they also strike us with our state of loneliness in a fallen world. A favorite Russian song of mine goes, “Ask me to come with you. I will go through the evil night. I will send myself after you, so that the road doesn’t prophesy the way I should go.” These words sound brittle, awkward in my native tongue, but in Russian, their poetic cadence draws me to worship God, the melancholy melody reminding me both of life’s transience and the gift Christ has given us in overcoming it. But again, this song-induced sehnsucht doesn’t always bring that joyful hope in God; sometimes it calls out, “If only someone else could understand exactly how I do when I hear this song, then I would be filled.” To everyone I know, “Ask Me to Come with You” sounds like a typical over-sentimental ballad, and this hurts. And for now, I am alone in my song, alone in a fallen world where barriers to intimacy are rarely broken.

It is in these visceral responses of loneliness and discontent that songs prove that we are made in the image of God. One author mused that the human soul is too vast to fit in the present. One of the things that sets us apart from animals is our ability to remember the past and to imagine the future. In this sense, songs are a constant reminder of our humanity, propelling us to the awe of the first time abroad as a teenager or prompting us to picture what life might be like after we leave this earth. Songs are not life, and we shouldn’t try to constrain our lives into a ten song soundtrack. But songs do reflect life and vivify life and point to the Giver of life, and sometimes they are just what we need to realize that our souls are vaster than we have dared to hope.

I Am (Not) My Writing

I am my writing. I have been told this is a lie, yet every tap on the keyboard feels like a needle invading my finger veins, draining drops of blood. I am my writing.It is not hard to understand why this statement seems so much more like truth than a lie. Since childhood, I have felt closest to God with a pen in my hand, outpouring my reflections and prayers in a cozy journal that never made me feel unsafe or misunderstood. When I pray out loud, my sloppy words waddle around in distracted circles, but when I write to God, it feels like he takes over my pen and guides my hand to record the truth that gets lost in the wind when I try to speak. For a glorious stretch of time between my first journal entry and the end of high school, I was not my writing. Writing was a joy, an escape to exotic locales and vivid characters. Writing was a gift, a bowl into which I could pour all my messy emotions and observe them to get a proper perspective. But when college began, something changed.

          As I was thrust into the world of discussion-based classes alongside students who seemed to know what they wanted to say and how to say it, I began to feel painfully incompetent. When I tried to contribute in class, my sentences seemed awkward and broken, filled with stops and starts and misused verbs. I would chastise myself for answering a question with “yeah, it’s pretty cool,” when the guy sitting across from me threw around words like “Aristotelian” with a yawn. I had thoughts, I had ideas, but when I opened my mouth, I was as articulate as a caveman, and as I compared myself to my classmates I wondered if I was somehow mentally deficient. Outside the classroom, I felt caricatured by those around me, carelessly squished into a box labeled “quiet, responsible, and a little boring.”  In this new school where I desperately wanted to find friends, I didn’t feel perceived as who I really was, the goofy girl who loved people and adventures and traveling to foreign countries.
          It was with a pen that I found the power to fight back against the one-dimensional identity that I thought was being forced upon me. When my TGC class was assigned a “This I Believe Essay,” I lit up when I realized that the assignment offered me the opportunity to share about my experiences in Russia, which were adventurous and daring and anything but quiet and responsible. I felt immense satisfaction as I passed in the finished product, knowing that whoever read it, even if it was only my professor, would see who I really was.
          But to my delight, it wasn’t only my professor who saw it; I was assigned to have a conference on the paper with my TGC fellow. It was an understatement to say that I had a crush on this senior T.A. I was convinced that he was everything I wanted in a man; with his intense gaze and depth of insights into suffering, love, and the good life*, it wasn’t just three flights of stairs that made my heart race on my way to class. But alas, I was cursed with the freshman-ness and inarticulateness that made me invisible to this intellectual demigod. I trembled in nervousness as I hiked my way up to the third floor of the chapel to meet him, and four years later, his words to me still resonate: “it was one of the most polished essays. It had an enthralling tone! And I know I shouldn’t say this…. But, it was my favorite.” I’m sure my eighteen year old face was glowing as if he had just asked for my hand in marriage.  I am my writing, I thought.
            My sophomore year, I stood before my creative writing class and read a poem that was my masterpiece: it perfectly articulated all that God had been teaching me, and the form and structure reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe. I will never forget the bewildered, confused look on my professor’s face after I finished reading. His wide eyes and open mouth seemed to betray that he absolutely hated it but was trying not to let it show. An awkward silence lingered for a few seconds and I took my seat, defeated. I am my writing. This summer, a friend read the same poem and he loved it, expressing amazement and appreciation for my thoughts and the way I had worded them. He “got” my writing, therefore, he “got” me.
My experiences in college have shown me that the belief that I equal my writing is a dangerous equation, a mode of measurement as capricious as New England weather.  Sometimes the words flow effortlessly, but most of the time, I feel like I can’t string together sentences worthy of a third grader. Nonetheless, writing has become a defense weapon, a shield against my fears that I do not measure up. It has become an advertisement for myself, trying to convince others that I am worth their time. And after four years of striving to prove myself through two dimensional black and white pages, I have begun to realize that my idolization of writing has squished me into a smaller box than the one I was trying to escape.
            Ephesians 2:10 says that we are God’s workmanship, a word that comes from the Greek “poiema,” where we get the term “poem.” We are God’s poems, masterfully sculpted works of art whose stories cannot be constrained to something as paltry as a page. To try to wrest the pen from my Creator in a small-minded attempt to make a name for myself blinds me to the breathtaking story he wants to write my life into. So as I graduate, I want to transform this pen, to use it not as a weapon, not as a billboard promoting Hope Johnson, but as a gift, remembering that though writing is a tool God has given me to process this life, it is not life itself. Taking my eyes off myself and fixing them on the author of a much greater story than could fit on a page frees me with truth that I am not my writing. No, I am His writing. 

*love, suffering and the good life are three things Gordon College’s first year seminar really likes to talk about. Alot.

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