National Poetry Month

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry

National Poetry Month
April 2011

April is National Poetry Month. I asked Fleda Brown if she’d talk about poetry in today’s culture. I wondered if anyone cares about it. I’ve noticed that you have to go to the musty back of most bookstores to find the poetry section, and it often has mostly anthologies of “Best Loved” type poems.

You know, David Orr has said in The New York Times Book Review, “One of the best things about being an American is that you are free to dislike poetry for whatever reason you want. You can say that it’s too clever or too dumb; you can think it’s old-fashioned or pointlessly trendy; you can protest it has nothing to do with real life or you can complain that it’s mostly about Volkswagens and mastectomies.”

And as Mark Flanagan, on, says, “It’s about time someone wrestled poetry to the ground and slapped a sign on its back reading, ‘I’m poetry. Kick me here.’”

I could quote forever—there’s so much written about what poetry is, why we should care, and why we don’t care. The truth is, we do care. Poetry has never been more popular. You should check out Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project at There are videos of ordinary people reciting or reading their favorite poems and talking about how much those poems have meant to their lives. No joke. I get tears in my eyes when I watch some of these videos. There’s one by this south Boston kid (you should know that South Boston is the worst part) who has had a bunch of friends die from suicide. he reads “We Real Cool,” by Gwendolyn Brooks and you see him use this poem as a way to say how it is, how it was. There’s another one by a Chinese high school student. She talks about how she has to be perfect at everything—she plays three instruments, is in national honor society, and so on. But she says, she would like to be nobody, not have that pressure. And she reads “I’m Nobody, Who Are You” by Emily Dickinson and talks about how that poem says how she feels. I could go on and on.

More poetry is being written and published now than ever before—which of course means that a lot of bad poetry as well as good is out there for us to discover. That’s all to the good, to my mind. History tends to forget how much bad art it takes to make a small amount of good art. Nature is wasteful.

What do you mean by bad poetry? Who gets to decide these things? Isn’t a poem good if I like it?

Well, to an extent. We live in what we like to hope is a democracy. And even in countries where that’s not the case, no matter who tries to hold back the tide—finally, eventually, the people get to have their say. True for our language, too. No one can hold back the tide of usage change, of change in meanings and of tastes. We can’t dictate ‘good” art of any kind.

Yet there IS such a thing as a good poem. True, there’s no National Board of Poetry Standards. As in any other field, there’s bickering among poets about what’s good and what’s not. The decision will finally be made by time itself, but in the present, we have two ways to help us decide.

First, we can listen to successful poets—those whose work is applauded in the national and international arenas. If we get a roomful of those poets together (as we do to decide, for example, who wins the National Book Award for poetry), we can trust that the group will come up with a good winner. It might not be OUR choice, we may hate some of the poets in that room, but the consensus will be a GOOD choice. This is what we must do in any field—listen to those who’ve devoted their lives to the work.

Second, we can consult the best work of the past, the work people still want to read and hear. How well does it seem to us that this recent work measures up?

So, Fleda, if YOU were on the National Board of Poetry Standards, what would YOU say? How would YOU judge?

I have my personal complaints about some modern poetry. I don’t like lax lines, prose masquerading as poetry, poems in which I feel that the poet isn’t able to control language with enough skill to make it sing. I’ve used this test with my students—if you can’t write a decent poem in a regular meter, you don’t have the dexterity to write a good poem in free verse.

I want a poem to have commitment. I want the poet to use verbs. I don’t want to float through the air on images and phrases that mimic the dream-mind and never come down to earth.

I want to feel passion in a poem, a perspective and a deep connection to the material by the writer. I want the poem to feel as if it HAD to be written. I don’t want to feel that I’m reading an exercise in poem-writing.

A good poem uses the scaffolding of language to take me to someplace breathlessly outside of language. It’s like the wind. If I’m able to trap it neatly in a paraphrase, it’s no longer wind. T.S. Eliot said, “Genuine poetry…can communicate before it is understood.”

But, a caveat here: It takes good readers to be communicated TO. The poet Randall Jarrell said, if we were in the habit of reading poets their obscurity would not matter; and, once we are out of the habit, their clarity does not help.”

A good poem is rich. I love going to art galleries. There are some paintings that take my breath away, that excite the heck out of me, but when I go back and look a second or a third time, they feel used up. There was an initial “Isn’t that amazing?” and then a gradual loss of interest. I’m finding nothing deeper there, nothing more complex to intrigue me and make me wonder. A good poem lets me read it or hear it a thousand times and yields something interesting, pleasing, puzzling, daunting, terrifying, unsettling, satisfying, every time.

A good poem connects me with other people, long dead or alive. I see into someone’s life. California photographer Seph Rodney remembers (and this is another from the Favorite Poem Project) his first reading of Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”: “There I was,” he says, ” a seventeen-year-old boy from Jamaica opening a book written by a white woman so far away from me, and yet she spoke my own life. I love that she did that for me. I love that poetry still does that.”

I love it that poetry still does that for me, too.

By Mark Strand b. 1934

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.


Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry