Confessions of a Poemphobe

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.

* * *
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
baseball caps,
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.

* * *
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.

* * *
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 MonthWhat Did You Have for Lunch?

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23 Responses to Confessions of a Poemphobe

  1. i don’t read poetry, haven’t since high school and only read it then because we had to. but i do love words and i do appreciate how some people are more artistic than others, and struggle because of it. i think anything that helps you express how you’re feeling, to actually see your own words in writing, is a good thing, you might not feel that way another day, but you’ve captured how you felt at that time, whether it’s happy or sad, it does capture that instant.

  2. Hi, I just wanted to let you know I posted a response to some of your questions about being a secret blogger.

  3. Elisabeth says:

    No time to comment now, but I’ll try to come back. Very interesting topic, Neil.

  4. Edgy Mama says:

    Intriguing. And yet, for a guy who’s avoiding being in touch with his emotions, this is, well, pretty in touch.

  5. OMSH says:

    I read the whole thing.
    All.of.it.

    Do I get a badge?
    I want a badge.

    I’ll say it now. I’m a woman and poetry is “meh” to me. Flowers are nice, but unless they promise more to come in their sweet little note, they are pretty “meh” too.

    I don’t think it is because I have trouble expressing myself. I think it is because when I express myself I just want to SAY IT. JUST SAY IT already. Poetry isn’t straightforward. I need straightforward.

    haikus are fun though
    they are more like a puzzle

    I’m spewing random thoughts today, feel free to click “delete” in your backend.

    The backend of your blog, that is.
    heh
    heh

    There once was a girl who blogged
    She worked online all the day long
    She bore 3 kids
    Her husband smoked cigs
    She never had use for a bong

  6. churlita says:

    Poetry is hit and miss with me. There are some poets that make me want to write, and others who make me glad I don’t write poetry.

  7. V-Grrrl says:

    I really enjoy poetry. My favorite poems are those where a moment of epiphany finds its expression in something very ordinary, but I can also appreciate poems that simply capture a mood or an emotion.

    I resisted posting poetry on my blog for a long time because the quickest way to make someone uncomfortable and scanning for an exit is to tell them you write poetry–or to post it on your blog.

    But I don’t have ads or sponsors for my blog, I’m not racking up big numbers, I’m just another Grrrl with a keyboard and something to say, so now my blog includes an occasional poem and a bit of my artwork–and not too many comments.

  8. wendy says:

    “Bravo.” says the friend.

    “Snap.” says the poet.

  9. Catherine says:

    “It took me years to understand why a woman would want to get flowers. After all, they just die in a few days.”

    – would you mind filling me in?

  10. Belinda says:

    I don’t usually even try to deconstruct poetry for other people–if it’s something that moved me, I just share it. That’s almost always better than anything I could say about it.

  11. Neil, I was lucky enough to see Billy Collins live at the Prarie Home Companion taping in NYC last year. Among others, he read “the revenant:”

    >>I am the dog you put to sleep, as you like to call the needle of oblivion, come back to tell you this simple thing: I never liked you–not one bit. When I licked your face, I thought of biting off your nose. When I watched you toweling yourself dry, I wanted to leap and unman you with a snap. I resented the way you moved, your lack of animal grace, the way you would sit in a chair to eat, a napkin on your lap, knife in your hand. I would have run away, but I was too weak, a trick you taught me while I was learning to sit and heel, and–greatest of insults–shake hands without a hand. I admit the sight of the leash would excite me but only because it meant I was about to smell things you had never touched. You do not want to believe this, but I have no reason to lie. I hated the car, the rubber toys, disliked your friends and, worse, your relatives. The jingling of my tags drove me mad. You always scratched me in the wrong place. All I ever wanted from you was food and fresh water in my metal bowls. While you slept, I watched you breathe as the moon rose in the sky. It took all of my strength not to raise my head and howl. Now I am free of the collar, the yellow raincoat, monogrammed sweater, the absurdity of your lawn, and that is all you need to know about this place except what you already supposed and are glad it did not happen sooner– that everyone here can read and write, the dogs in poetry, the cats and the others in prose. – Billy Collins>>

    And bully for you that you were able to express your anger in a poem. At times our private poetry is the best kind.
    Namaste. ~HDJ

  12. sassy says:

    On ode from Sassy to Neil : (Seeing as I’m a feminine type and we’re down with our emotions and all, according to you.)

    I’m way to ordinary
    to write poetry
    that doesn’t suck,
    so I pass the buck.

    Trite is too easy
    and sleasy is cheesy.
    Don’t you get
    what I’m saying? Pleasey?

    Why don’t I write peotry on my blog? Because it makes me want hate myself almost as much as I do for publishing this idoitic comment !

    (:

  13. 180/360 says:

    Hmm… interesting. It’s funny because I tend to get the least amount of comments when I put up my poetry. I always assume that people just don’t like it, but now I have a different way to look at it. It’s still quite possible they think it’s shite, but your idea makes me feel more positive. :)

  14. sputnik says:

    Oh, NO! Poetry Thursday is defunct? That’s terrible. I started participating when you started columnizing. I read all your posts over there when they first came out. I was so remiss over the summer, with no time for a poem-a-week, that I forgot to go back. And I am so late I even missed the final farewell poem contribution. And now I have to remove the link from my blog. Sad!

  15. Sara says:

    I think this is the best thing I’ve ever read here. Thanks for re-“printing” these.

  16. Pearl says:

    I might be a blogger, Neil, but poetry has always been my obsession. Since I was a kid, I’d write poems, and it’s interesting to see how they’ve evolved in the past 40+ years.
    It is my poetry that gets published, rarely anything else. My poetry speaks about me — and for me!

  17. adena says:

    I’ve never been big on poetry. There are certain OLD SCHOOL poets that I like enough…Tennyson, Burns, etc…

    But, the new stuff? Meh. Can’t get into it.

    Give me fiction, any day.

    Same goes for flowers. I don’t “get” flowers, either. They die in a few days, so they’re pretty, but pointless. I’d rather have a plant.

    I make a sucky girl.

  18. plain jane says:

    Great post! (How is that for a trite comment?)

    I didn’t know Sophia was having more suregery. I’m sorry. Hmmm. Just noticed my misspelling of surgery, but it sounds strong and confident. SURE-GERY. A sure bet.

    I’m like Adena, I make a sucky girl, I’d rather have a blender than flowers, although flowers are nice. I’d rather have a Dyson vacuum than a diamond ring, no contest.

    I LOVE Billy Collins poem! Wow.

    That’s all. Thanks.

  19. I’m glad that you are enlightened enough to appreciate the Russians’ appreciation for ballet and figure skating. I’ve always liked that about the Russians.

  20. mrsatroxi says:

    Wow. You are good! ;)

    (You are, honest.)

    I love poetry.

    I don’t know why, I won’t defend or deny it, it’s just there.

    I could babble on about it, but I won’t, since I’ll just sound as dumb as usual.

  21. SB says:

    Ah, you’re in luck — There’s a new Thursday Poetry site, though it’s not called that.

    Totally Optional Prompts

    The prompts go up on Saturday; links go up on Thursday, and ongoing.

    What I like to know from those who read my poems is what they feel, think, experience as they read. Technical critiques are welcome, too (not all poets welcome that.)

    And I like to know if something doesn’t make sense, or is confusing. It’s helpful to know that.

  22. kristen says:

    These are great columns. I haven’t read the other comments so maybe I’m being repetitive here, but, as a poet, what I go for is to write something that both feels visceral and tells a story — a very confined one — from the gut level. I feel like it’s the same process as short story writing, except instead of your higher brain writing it, it’s being written by your pituitary gland or medulla oblangata. You’re not entirely aware of what’s happening until it’s over, then you read it back and say “Yeah. That’s totally what I was trying to say.”

    I guess you run the risk that people will scratch their heads and say “Huh?”, but I usually find that my Inner Reader is almost as objective as anyone else’s. If I read what my brain stem wrote and it makes sense to my Higher Brain, it seems to make sense to other people too.

    As for appropriate comments or reactions to poetry, I think highlighting the stanzas you like best and saying how they make you feel — e.g. “beautiful” or “wow” — is more than sufficient, if the poet in question is writing for general readers and not for other poets.

  23. kristen says:

    p.s. After seeing Billy Collins read at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, one of my friends and I declared him “The Jerry Seinfeld of poetry”. His use of humor has gone a long way toward getting people to accept the notion of poetry as entertainment. Still not as entertaining as figure skating (love it), but pretty good.

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