Carolyn Howard-Johnson shares writers’ resources on her award-winning blog Sharing with Writers
Are You Ready for One of My Little Rants
Let’s Stop Saying, “I Don’t Like Poetry”
book and marketing consultant, writer and poet when my life needs a little helping of joy
When I was taking my first poetry class as an adult, I was surprised when UCLA poetry icon Suzanne Lummis sashayed into our classroom and said, “Good evening, Poets!” It seemed overblown. Arrogant…even foreign. “Poet” as a title seemed a little high falutin’– something we humble students should presume to be. Ad I am a person who believes attitude is everything. When it comes to poetry, too many of us harbor attitudes much like mine. Therefore, they say something like “I don’t like poetry,” because it’s easier than even supposing that one might get off one’s duff and learn to like it! Or giving it enough consideration to realize the statement is a little like saying “I hate Picasso” when they don’t know enough about his work to know the man painted in several styles. Sooo, do they hate his “blue period” or “cubist” period. Do they hate both of those styles, one of them, or everything in between? Really?
So, two things happened recently that caused me start writing about poetry. First, a reviewer told me that my poetry is “beautiful: and then went on to say she “didn’t understand much of it.” That’s like saying not much of anything in the literary world. What would the point of writing something with vocabulary or structure or anything else that everyone understood? Where would the fun be in that? Is that our expectation when we pick up a The New York Times–that we will understand everything. Maybe we will, but only after many years of training in reading, vocabulary building, attention to topics usually covered like politics and on and on.
The second thing that happened, a slender book (or booklet) known as a chapbook found its way into my hands. Words and Bones is a lovely book of poetry published by Finishing Line Press that specializes in slender books of poetry—one of mine from more than ten years ago, in fact. This one is written by LB Sedlacek and she writes poetry uniquely suited to show people who don’t know much about poetry how to tackle the process of “understanding” it better—or at least how to better appreciate what they don’t (yet) understand.
I am parroting Clinton’s political campaign, “It’s the line breaks, stupid.” They throw us for a loop. We think we have to pause when we see that break, even when there is no punctuation there that tells us to do so. In fact, there is a whole school of poetry by a former US laureate of poetry. Philip Levine was instrumental in molding it into what he called the Fresno School of Poetry. Doesn’t sound fancy, does it?
And it isn’t. It’s almost journalistic. It feels as if the poem was written like prose and then Levine (or other poet using similar techniques) goes back to breaks up the lines—maybe purposely or maybe on a whim. It can be real with Line break pauses or as full sentences. Readers can ignore those line breaks until some kind of punctuation like commas, semicolons—even dashes–tells them to pause or a period or question mark tells them to stop. When they read the poem that way, the poem reads like what we are used to reading all the time. You know. Sentences. That ultimately makes it much easier to “understand.” Maybe more depth, but still.
Here is an example from the poem “Visible Thing” in Sedlaceks’ book.
The old jeans
by kudzu for
of different hues.
by the creek
The color of
day by looking
See? They are sentences. They are capitalized at the beginning, a period at the end. And we start seeing a snapshot from the South (we know it’s the South because of kudzu, but if we don’t know kudzu is practically a man-eating plant from the South, that’s ok). I mean we get that concept from “eaten alive.” The reader can look up “kudzu” on Google. Or not. We still “get it.”
There some other neat stuff, too. Triplets. Middle lines but one word. Maybe that’s a way to make sure you know they aren’t important, image-making words. Sometimes a poet lets a word stand alone on its line for the opposite reason—to give them more importance. Look at the sentences and find the noun-subject—you know the ones you learned about in the secondary school. “The old jeans factory” leads the sentence as a subject where we most usually find it.
I’m going to let you pick apart out the first sentence in the poem, and then the second. Lo! It turns out to be an environmental poem where the fearsome kudzu wasn’t as damaging as the jeans factory itself which has spit out colored poisons into the very place where children play for years! And Sedlacek has done all that without tsk, tsking at you. No lecture. She supplies the visual in only two sentences and you get to make up your own mind about the deeper meaning based on images—just a few details—she has presented to us. It is so un-preachy that even climate deniers might like it.
By the way, those line breaks, are good for a second reading. You might find the last word in each line so poignant, so laden with meaning that they become a poem within a poem that describes the poem you just read. You also might find some more meaning in in it if you follow that last word in the line to the next line to see if it leads to something unexpected. Maybe you were expecting a cliché—and then it doesn’t happen. It’s a little surprise. A little fun within the poem. Yep, verbs, too. What does
the factory do? It “hummed drummed along spitting out pants.” It’s up to you to remember that subject—that it is a jeans factory! But you don’t need to worry about that because you’re used to figuring out what any sentence is really about, even very long sentences.
I highly recommend this book of poetry for readers of poetry—those who love it and those who “don’t understand it.” Much of its beauty is in the simplicity. In fact, I highly recommend, this poem to Dr. Bob Rich who assembles literature that has an environmental inclination.
Now, I’ll tell you. I am a poet. As ostentatious as that may sound, I urge you to get over it. I am also a marketer. And a journalist. And a wife. And a mom. And a grandmother. I even practice yoga. Still. At my age! I am a regular bubbling pot full of poetic ideas emanating from each of those parts of me. And I want you to have as much fun—in the reading of poems or in the writing of it—as I do.
Suggestion for Friends and Writers
In this box, I list a Tidbit that will help authors write or promote better on the months my “Back to Literature” columns
appear as well as a tip Tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.
Gift for Writers: :Everyone is a writer these days. The ones that aren’t may find my advice to
write about what is bothering them helpful for their stress level. Maybe my multi award-winning
The Frugal Editor will help give them the confidence to actually send what YOU write—whether you
consider yourself a writer or not—to the power brokers of the world! Especially if find a whole lot of the rules
stifle your creativity because you’ll find many of them aren’t rules at all, that we get to make style choices.
Emphasis on the word choices. In fact, maybe this book should be on a list of ten books or articles that will
reduce anxiety. Maybe one day I’ll write it. If you have a suggestion, let me know at [email protected].
Bubble baths are good, but fewer rules to worry about (and more good books to read!) may be even better.
Gift for Readers: My newest book is a book of poetry. Jim Cox, Editor-in-Chief of Wisconsin Bookwatch
says, “[Carolyn Howard-Johnson is] an exceptionally skilled wordsmith, her poetry will linger in the mind
memory long after the book itself has been finished and set back upon the shelf. Very highly recommended
for community and academic library Contemporary American Poetry collections . . .” Find
Imperfect Echoes at http://bit.ly/ImperfectEchoes. And, yes, I’ll admit that it may have poems in it that
you don’t agree with it. And maybe it will have some you do! Yes, there are even a couple poems within
to pacify easily pleased feminists.
Cover art by Richard Conway Jackson who is serving twenty-five years to life in a California State
prison for receiving stolen property.
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