Thursday, October 27, 2011

Why People Hate Poetry

Poets don't get a lot of mainstream attention. If you don't read poetry publications or websites, you probably don't know much about what is happening in the current poetry world. Pretty much the only way to get mainstream attention is to be named Poet Laureate of the United States or to win a big award. These won't make you a rock star, but you will get covered by the media for a bit and will be placed out front in chain bookstores. This is what led me to reading Kay Ryan's book The Best of It: New and Selected Poems.

I do read poetry publications and websites, but before Ryan was named Poet Laureate in 2008, I had never heard of her. She served as Poet Laureate until 2010 and also won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Anyone who gets this much recognition, I like to at least read a bit of his/her work, so I put Ryan's book on my reading list for 2011.

I've spent the last three days reading her book cover to cover. It is 265 pages of poems that were selected from her previous books as well as a handful of new poems. I started with an open mind, but as I read I became more and more frustrated and confused by the praise Ryan has received.

I don't typically write negative reviews on my blog, but I think Ryan can handle a little criticism from my little blog. To be blunt, her work is boring. Honestly, these are some of the most boring poems I've ever read and I've read a lot of poems. Her work mostly focuses on nature and has some philosophical observation that I guess should delight or surprise the reader. These observations or points are sometimes interesting, but are so quick and non-complicated that they don't stay with you very long. Reading these poems is sort of like sitting with a wise old woman who makes short quips that sometimes make you go "uhm." I keep saying short, because most of the poems are between 14 and 20 lines long and most of the lines are only 2 to 4 words long (and don't even get me started on the titles). These are pretty small poems.

What surprised me the most was how much her work hasn't changed in her career. The fun part of reading a selected or collected book is often seeing the changes and experiments of the poet. You can see their work grow and move in various directions. Ryan's work has stayed exactly the same. You could take one of her oldest poems and one of her latest and you would see no difference. This book contained poems from 1994 up to 2010, but the only reason I knew this is because the book told me with its section breaks.

When I got done with the book, I couldn't help but think that this is exactly why people hate poetry. If I gave someone, who doesn't read much poetry, this book, it would confirm all the things most people already think about poetry. The average person doesn't read poetry because they assume it's all boring, about nature or love, and that it has nothing to do with themselves or real life. If they read Ryan's book, they would be right. Her poems give you little polished gems or nuggets of wisdom or advice or perspective, but they don't get at your core.

As an instructor who has taught poetry, my first goal is always to breakdown the stereotypes and misconceptions students have about poetry. I get them to see that poetry is so much broader and more interesting than they ever expected. As instructors we have to fight this so much, because the majority of poetry people are exposed to is not really going to blow the mind of an 18-year-old college kid. It important to get people engaged and then you can expose them to all kinds of poetry (Ryan's included).

It is frustrating that often the most interesting and engaging poets are not the ones that get mainstream press. I'm sure lots of non-poetry readers picked up Ryan's book because they heard something about it and I bet a large portion of them were disappointed or they felt the need to pretend to be impressed because it is "Poetry" with a capital "P" and she is critically acclaimed.

I'm not saying Ryan is a terrible poet. I'm sure many genuinely like her work and connect with it. I don't, however, see her as a worthy contender for a big prize or Poet Laureate. To me, Poet Laureate should go to someone who is going to excite the country about poetry. A poet who is writing about the current world and exploring what it means to be a poet in the 21st century, but I don't make the rules.

There were a few poems I did mark to come back to later, but in a book with well over 200 poems, I should like more than 15 of them, especially if the book is called "the best of it."

-Stephen (Excite)


  1. I rather think of Ryan as a miniaturist Ogden Nash. If you were to take Nash's "Very Like a Whale", for instance, and whittle it down to "Very Like a Minnow", you'd have a Ryan poem.

  2. I am presently reading the new collected poems of Swedish poet, Tomas Transtromer, the newly named winner of the Noble Prize. I hesitate to characterize poems which I have read only so recently and only in translation. However, as I read Transtromer, I connect with many of the same observations which Mr. Mills' has in reading Ryan. His observations do have some general relevance.

  3. There is indeed a connection between poets who are praised by other poets, and being those same poets who the general public doesn't like to read. That's because poetry has indeed become rather elitist, rather specialized, and requires a Cliffs' Notes to be comprehended. Lots of contemporary poetry is puzzle-box poetry, starting with LangPo, and a lot of poetry is deliberately attempting to be obscure and hard to understand. That said, i don't find Ryan at all difficult; I actually find her kind of light and funny, because every poem has a twist of some kind in it.

    Some of this is of course because "Poetry" has become a very big, very diverse tent, with many different styles and ways of doing poems. So elements of taste and training do come into play. What do you think of other recent Poets Laureate, for example? Some I could take or leave. I thought Pinsky was an extremely effective PL, because he did so much to promote poetry to the general reader, and largely succeeded in all his efforts. The Poetry Kiosks, for example.

    So, yeah, I find Ryan very readable compared to many of her contemporaries, and far more readable than many poets who go out of their way to praise her. Lots of poets who praise her work aren't even up to it.

    Nevertheless many of your comments are on the mark. This is indeed why many non-poets don't like poetry. It's not necessarily that it's bad, it's that they can''t find a way to CONNECT to it. That connection is of course the heart of art, and poetry, and music, and we do live in an era when a lot of poets think it's somehow wrong, not just unfashionable, to connect to their readers. Far better to be ironically aloof.

    Yet I always hesitate in calling something I don't like bad, because maybe there's something in it that I just can't see, or that someone else might like even though I don't. I've been on the receiving end of such disdain lots of times, so I always hesitate to give it. Not that one shouldn't have a clear sense of one's own taste and judgment, and some things ARE just bad, but maybe one should also realize that taste and judgment are more subjective than many poets think they are. Just a thought.