A comment about modern poetry

It’s never a good idea to restrict yourself to a single time period in any field of art, and nowhere does this apply more than poetry.

I say that because even the most basic crop of well-known poems is so stylistically distinct. If you were to find a collection of the most well-regarded, yet entry-level works of literature, they would all be written in a relatively similar style. (I’m thinking of basic high-school classics, your Catchers in the Rye and Gatsbys and so on.) But poetry immediately presents us with a wide bevy of styles and contexts among its most basic and popular examples, and so the knowledge base required for someone to be able to say that they ‘enjoy poetry’ and not be a liar is somewhat larger.

You might say, ‘well, that’s ridiculous. You don’t have to be some historical connoisseur to enjoy poetry at all. There’s a huge amount of each type.’ And you would be correct. But the main distinguishing feature I notice nowadays in people is curiosity. And the most curious among us will eventually discover the merits of all manner of poets from Homer to Tao Lin.

Far be it from me to explain exactly what on earth is transpiring within most modern poetry; arbitrary line breaks, nonexistent meter, lack of metaphor or simile or rhyme, all combine in various concentrations throughout every piece of poetry I’ve read that was written after the early 20th century. Or so it seems. Sometimes the breaking of form is merely an occasional lapse – the normally rigorous structure is subverted to prove a point or create a certain mood. You can do some clever things with careful enjambment and there are too many examples to count. But take it too far, and it’s not possible to describe the results as poetry at all.

‘Poesis’ – an ancient Greek term meaning ‘to create what did not previously exist’ evokes the ability that modern poetry calls its specialisation above all else – the ability to create unmatched imagery and emotional clout. That’s all well and good, except for the fact that prose can also do it. Historically, poetry precedes prose, because oral traditions preceded writing systems, and cultures needed a method of retaining history. Epic poetry, for example, set to music now sadly lost, would be far easier to memorise than the modern novel. We have to consider that the old notion of poetry was that it was the form by which things were preserved alongside music, not in isolation, and also that once writing systems were developed it came to sit alongside prose, the latter being able to preserve more mundane details.

Both came to serve their own purposes. Yet modern poetry, seemingly unsatisfied with its purview, has been gradually expanded in scope – by what process or person I don’t know – to include prose within itself, as if the field is trying to encompass every possible piece of writing. Case in point, ‘prose poetry’ and ‘blank verse.’ Prose poetry is prose which the author claims is poetry. It’s not poetry. Where does the desire to subsume prose come from? Wasn’t blank verse enough?

There’s merit in breaking form. TS Eliot’s The Waste Land alone, along with chunks of Ezra Pound, should convince almost anyone of that fact. And to an extent that quality has survived into (post)modernity – Simon Armitage, the contemporary English poet, has a few nice lines up his sleeve.

Take, for example, his poem Evening. What initially begins as a childish outing (‘You’re twelve, thirteen at the most’) ends with the subject at least middle-aged, with a ‘daughter too big for a cot’ over four lines, and we don’t realise that time’s passed until he begins the fourth stanza with ‘your child…’. It’s a comment about how quickly life passes us by, that the subject can find himself a twelve-year-old boy one second and have a daughter asleep in bed and a worried spouse not a minute later. The enjambment literally represents the passage of time. Then there’s Gooseberry Season.

‘…locking his dog in the coal bunker. We made him a bed

And he slept till Monday.’

The gap between stanzas is the physical moment when all outside stimulus stops, when sensation ceases – or in other words, when he sleeps. Again, the structure forces our reading experience to emulate the passage of time.

The form is the function. Magnificent.

This is why modern poetry should break structure – for the purpose of immersion in the most natural way. That’s poesis, in that moment of blank paper, the creation of an entirely new sensation.

But for every Simon Armitage there’s a Rupi Kaur, a lazy, cynical complaint-monger with too many moralistic messages and not enough writing practice. I am nearly unable to tell her real ‘work’ from parodies, so low has the bar been set. I have read one clever line from her, a pun about ejaculation, and have little desire to read much further. Now, it is obviously both unfair and pointless to compare the two poets, so I won’t. But the point is that there’s a right and wrong way to go about meter-less poetry: it still requires that you possess a brain.

It’s not merely the poor quality of her work but the utterly abhorrent ontological perspective she espouses that make me so unusually dismissive, I will admit that. Because I know that as a result of that ontology, she won’t improve or develop. (Which is somewhat ironic, given her frequent subject matter.)

Little remains to be said, other than it’s a poor idea to dismiss poetry you may dislike on a first reading. Give it a day and two reads. You might be surprised. Based off the frequent lack of rhyming, I assumed I would hate Simon Armitage – I didn’t, because he knew what he was doing.


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