One of the most surprising blogging relationships is my unlikely friendship with Dana and Liz Elayne of Poetry Thursday. I say “unlikely” because they are both creative women very much in touch with their emotions and inner selves, and I live my life to avoid those things. I really enjoyed their Poetry Thursday blog. Sadly, they recently stopped publishing the site in order to focus their energies elsewhere.
From day one, I appreciated the way these two women weren’t snotty about poetry. They told me that reading poetry was good for the soul and the brain. They used every trick in the book to seduce me into the world of poetry. They introduced me to Billy Collins, to funny poets, and to poets who wrote love sonnets to women’s breasts. They appealed to my interests and soon I was even reading poems about things foreign to me, like trees and animals.
Today, I was feeling sad about the destruction caused by the California wild fires. The sadness made me think of poetry, and poetry made me think of Dana and Liz.
A few months ago, Dana and Liz asked me to write a column for Poetry Thursday titled “Confessions of a Poemphobe.” I only had the chance to write three columns. I don’t know how long Poetry Thursday will be archived online, so I’m republishing them here on Citizen of the Month. Re-reading the posts reminds me how lucky I’ve been to meet such wonderful people like Dana and Liz.
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confessions of a poemphobe — poetry for men
My Russian-born wife loves to watch professional figure skating. Together, we’ve watched countless competitions on TV and I’ve even been dragged to few World Championships. Whenever we’re sitting in the arena, watching all the lifts, axels and flamboyant costumes, we end up having the same discussion — why do Russian male figure skaters look so “masculine” and athletic, while the American men look so … hmm, how can I say this while remaining politically correct … like interior designers from West Hollywood? Why does each country attract such different types of men?
I think the answer lies in cultural differences. In the Russian culture, it is considered manly to figure skate, to dance ballet and to write poetry. I’ve attended Russian dinners where it is almost an obligation for the men to recite poetry to the hostess, while drinking vodka, of course.
I know I’m skating on thin ice here (ha!), but most American men are leery of artistic expression that is considered “too feminine.” While any ballet dancer is probably more athletic and stronger than a typical soccer player, how many fathers would want to hear that their son is interested in taking ballet lessons?
I think the TV networks and the U.S. Figure Skating Federation are fully aware of how figure skating is perceived by the average American man. When Michael Weiss, one of the few “manly”-looking American figure-skating competitors had a child, the ESPN cameras were all too eager to show him holding his baby in the air and kissing his blond model-type wife, as if to announce to America, “Hey men, he’s a figure skater AND a hot-blooded American man. It’s OK for YOU to watch the coverage with your wife!”
This ridiculous type of masculine/feminine stereotyping has affected my own enjoyment of poetry. I write fiction, screenplays, nonfiction. But poetry … what would my friends think?
What makes this especially sad is that I’m not some macho guy who watches football on Sunday or even fixes his own car. I’m an English major from an Ivy League university. I’m knowledgeable about the Western canon, from Blake to T.S. Eliot. I even enjoy reading poetry. But the truth is, poetry makes me feel awkward. Fiction feels more “masculine” to me. With fiction, there’s a plot — a thrust from point A to point B. Narrative deals with ideas and action. Can it be that this fear of poetry boils down to another cliché about men — the fear of expressing emotion and revealing vulnerability?
Of course, fiction requires emotion, but it is easier for the writer to hide behind a plot, a character or a concept. Writing poetry makes me feel naked, and no man wants to be seen naked, unless he works out at the gym first.
Like many men, I’m also more “practical” than my wife. It took me years to understand why a woman would want to get flowers. After all, they just die in a few days. Wouldn’t a blender be a better Valentine’s Day gift? Like flowers, poetry isn’t always meant to be practical, and this is sometimes hard for me to “get.” Sometimes there isn’t even a “point” to a poem other than it being an expression of emotion. I’m always looking for “meaning,” rather than taking the emotion in. The words, the image provoked or the music of the poem should be just enough to make a piece of writing special.
I’m learning to appreciate poetry more by reading poems, including many of the poems I see here on Poetry Thursday. It is good to be reminded that not all poems are about flowers or “girly” things, or topics that make you go out and buy a black beret. You can write poems about baseball games and pissing in the forest, and it can still be considered a poem.
Did anyone see the Rich Snyder poem “How Are You Doing?” reprinted in last week’s “American Life in Poetry?”
Rich Snyder is my new Michael Weiss. His poem reads like the poem of a regular hot-blooded American man.
How Are You Doing?
As much as you deserve it,
I wouldn’t wish this
Sunday night on you—
not the Osco at closing,
not its two tired women
and shaky security guard,
not its bin of flip-flops
and Tasmanian Devil
not its freshly mopped floors
and fluorescent lights,
not its endless James Taylor
song on the intercom,
and not its last pint of
chocolate mint ice cream,
which I carried
down Milwaukee Ave.
past a man in an unbuttoned
baseball shirt, who stepped
out of a shadow to whisper,
How are you doing?
Reprinted from “Barrow Street,” Winter, 2005, by permission of the author. Copyright © 2005 by Rick Snyder. This weekly column is supported by The Poetry Foundation, The Library of Congress, and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This column does not accept unsolicited poetry.
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confessions of a poemphobe — ‘wow! you are good!’
Lately, on my personal blog, I’ve been complaining about the whole system of “commenting” on blogs. After a while, these short little back-and-forth statements seem superficial, even frustrating. I wish I could be there with you, sharing a cup of coffee, rather than writing three sentences of encouragement. At other times, if you are having a bad day, I just want to hug you. Writing a comment saying, Don’t worry. Things will be OK! just seems phony and is NOT what I really want to say to you.
I find it especially difficult to comment on a poem. What is the appropriate response? I love the poetry of the Poetry Thursday participants, but how many times can I write Wow! You are good!
I come from a family of gabbers and kvetchers — so I love to talk. I can talk for hours about any subject, even those I know nothing about. Surprisingly, words frequently fail me when I experience something artistic. If I see a really great film, I want to keep the experience floating in my brain, not analyze the director’s vision or the acting of a new starlet. You can imagine the trouble I had dating when I was in film school. Brainy female film student always wanted to talk about the movie! Not now! I would say. It’s still fresh in my mind!
Language cannot always capture my true feelings about art. What is there to say the first time you see a famous painting, like Mona Lisa? It’s nice, but it looks smaller than I imagined just doesn’t cut it.
For me, poetry is the most difficult subject to discuss. In a novel or a film, I can talk about the narrative or characters. In a painting, I can talk about the color and movement. But how do you find the right words to talk about words that are more beautiful than yours?
If I like a Poetry Thursday poem, I usually write a variation of That’s wonderful! I know it’s lame, but I feel it is important to connect with the writer. (And frankly, everyone likes comments, even the dumb ones!)
I would like to write better comments. Maybe as I learn more about poetry, I can feel more confident in my ideas about poetic expression. I feel intimidated about saying what’s on my mind, particularly if I don’t understand a poem. For instance, I love the images in the first stanza of Carolyn Kizer’s “On a Line from Valery.”
The whole green sky is dying. The last tree flares
With a great burst of supernatural rose
Under a canopy of poisonous airs.
Do I really understand what she is describing? Not really. Under a canopy of poisonous airs? Huh? Is she talking about a forest fire? Now, honestly, if you were the poet, would you want me to ask you in the comments to explain this to me? I probably wouldn’t have the nerve to do it. Am I an idiot? I might ask myself, or is everyone just too afraid to ask the same question?
I understand that it is not a requirement to “understand” a poem completely. The poem can still work and be a little mysterious. But what can I say that sounds intelligent? How can I match the beauty of a poem with the appropriate response? Some of you are trained poets and can talk about the line breaks. I’m sometimes interested in mundane things — Is this autobiographical? How long did it take you to write this? Did you really write this in the bathtub?
Are these legitimate questions?
I think there are a lot of people like me — they enjoy poetry but are unsure how to participate in the discussion of it. I have no dreams of becoming a professional poet, but you want readers like me to keep poetry vibrant. I think poetry is too insular lately, with poets mostly writing for other poets. Any suggestions for how a layman like me can better participate in the conversation? Do poets actually want to know if someone doesn’t understand their poem? I hate saying Wow, nice! all the time.
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confessions of a poemphobe — anger management, poetry style
Last night, I think I wrote my first real poem. By saying that, I mean that I expressed some emotion on paper that was consuming me, rather than just trying to be clever or witty with words. Unfortunately, this emotion was a negative one, and I’m not sure I enjoyed the experience of dealing with it. I’m certainly not ready to show YOU the result.
There’s been a lot of tension in my household over the upcoming surgery of my wife, and if life was high school, I would get a failing grade in “Handling Stress.” I had trouble sleeping last night. I tossed and turned, and had an unpleasant dream about being in a bloody fistfight in an alley. This was an unusual dream, because I’ve never been in a fistfight and I rarely go into alleys. I even punched the bedroom wall while sleeping, jarring myself awake and scaring the hell out of my wife.
It was four in the morning and I was wide awake, so I went to my office to write “something” on my computer. What that “something” was, I wasn’t sure. At first I was going to write a post for my personal blog about punching the wall, but I found myself getting lost in unknowns of the narrative.
Why was I angry? “I’m not sure.” Who was I angry at? “?????.” Time to look into therapy.
I decided to write a poem. Actually, I didn’t really “decide,” I just did it. It was a primitive poem, but since there was no narrative, the writing came easy. No characters. No story. Just an expression of the emotion named anger. It was a poem about a bloody fistfight in some unnamed alley. It was a bad poem, but it was cathartic.
But afterwards, I felt a little dirty. It was uncomfortable expressing anger ― even to myself. It’s not something you do in my family.
But back to poetry.
Poetry is an ancient literary form. It is a form that many use to express themselves with more intensity than other types of writing. Is that why I ran to “poetry” to deal with some unpleasant emotion? Has this happened to you? Does writing about your unpleasant emotions make you uncomfortable? Do you try to push them onto the page for your art or for your own therapy? Do you get worried about what others might think if they saw this part of you?
And most importantly, if you read an angry poem about a bloody fistfight in an alley, would you cross to the other side of the street if you encountered this “poet” walking in your city?
A Year Ago on Citizen of the Month: What Did You Have for Lunch?