The inaugural poem was offered by a woman whose love of language was mitigated by her use of it. Unlike a few others, I don’t mind the tradition of exalting poets and artists in political settings. I didn’t mind Billy Collins as poet laureate. I don’t think all modern poetry is awful. I just don’t think the people that do the decision-making in this area are very good at making these decisions.
For one thing, there’s more of a divide between poets and people who don’t know poetry. The average person’s exposure to it involves a few lines of Whitman, something from Frost, discussing that Emily Dickinson was weird, and then a little while on Shakespeare’s sonnets. Next comes “modern poetry,” where you read a few things from 10 years ago, and the teacher gives you a writing assignment to do “your own poem.” Most people will do an ABAB rhyme structure, and the goth kids in the back of the class will talk about “piercing souls that are dark and hollow,” but for the most part, the lesson imparted is: “Poetry has no meaning, it can be anything, and as such, you can go on with your life.” If the teacher is so inspired, and really wants to make sure you remember poetry, you’ll watch a video called Dead Poets Society, and stop your learning of poetry at the romantics. You’ll then remember Whitman as that crazy guy who inspired kids to stand on their desks as Robin Williams left the classroom.
The poets, on the other hand, get wacky. Some of them don’t do the reading, so they write cliches without realizing it. Others offer poetry that’s simply too inward. In other words, you have common people with little knowledge of poetry, and poets who have little knowledge of people.
In a moment of self-awareness, Billy Collins offers a fantastic poem on what it’s like to workshop with others… first stanza excerpted here, but the rest available at this link.
by Billy Collins
I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title.
It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now
so immediately the poem has my attention,
like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve.
Warning: This pretty much only falls under the category of “clever poetry,” another brand of poetry that, while nice, is hardly the guiding light of higher aesthetics. See also the hilarious Ogden Nash.
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