Sunday, January 27, 2013

Poetry: Really, it's not that hard!

For the past couple of years, I've been reading at least one or two poems nearly every morning. I'm reading an eclectic mix of poets, from Shakespeare, Whitman, and Longfellow to Ted Kooser, Linda Pastan, and William Stafford. Through poetry, I'm discovering new worlds, exploring new ways to express emotion, and developing and fine-tuning my own literary tastes.

If all of this sounds complicated and arduous, and makes me sound impressive and erudite—as if I have an extensive library filled with leather-bound volumes of verse, where I settle myself ceremonially in an armchair, switch on my green-shaded brass lamp, and don my reading glasses—let me dispel that idea. What I have are paperback copies of Garrison Keillor's three Good Poems anthologies, and I keep them in the one room of the house I'm certain to visit every morning.

Yes, I confess: I read poetry in the bathroom.

(My mother read Time magazine in the bathroom. In fact, I'm not sure she ever read it anywhere else. Each week, the new issue was carried into the bathroom as soon as it arrived, and remained there until it had been read cover to cover. As a result, when I was growing up, I also read Time almost exclusively in the bathroom. If I visited a friend's house and saw an issue of Time on the coffee table, it seemed out of place to me, like a roll of toilet paper left out on the kitchen counter.)

Because I'm partial to the poets of New England—Robert Frost, of course, and Donald Hall, and Maxine Kumin—I'm surprised to learn how much poets from other parts of the country have to say, and how their poems resonate with me. Even though I've never visited the Northwest, the words of Raymond Carver take me there. When I read Wendell Berry, there I am on a farmhouse porch in Kentucky at dusk.

But I have a lifelong allegiance to New England, and to Maine in particular, and the Maine poets—native or adopted—are among my most revered. Wesley McNair, Stuart Kestenbaum—I've heard and read them, here and there, for years now. Philip Booth, Alice Persons, and Kristen Lindquist are new-to-me favorites. (Thanks, Garrison, for performing the introductions.)

I have to admit, though, that until the Big Announcement came out a couple of weeks ago, I had never heard of Richard Blanco, the poet chosen to create and read an original poem at the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. (He doesn't appear in any of the Good Poems anthologies—the first thing I did when I heard the news was check. I suspect—I hope!—that will be rectified when Garrison puts together his next anthology.)

As it turns out, Richard Blanco lives in Bethel, the next town north of mine. “Holy crap!” I yelled, charging into the den to read the news story to my husband and son. “They've announced the inaugural poet! He's a gay Cuban-American and he lives in Bethel, Maine!”

“There's a poet that famous living in Bethel?” said my husband.

“There's a gay Cuban-American living in Bethel?” said my son.

Bethel is a town of about 2000 people. Blanco has been living there for over three years. He's the co-chair of the planning board there; I'm a selectman here in Greenwood. He apparently gets his hair cut right around the corner from my house. Wouldn't you think our paths might have crossed by now?

Sadly, no. But that hasn't stopped me from adopting him wholeheartedly as my new favorite neighbor. Becoming a fan of his Facebook page. Reading every article and interview I've seen about him since he so suddenly became famous. Ordering his most recent book, Looking for the Gulf Motel. Hoping that, once the uproar settles down a bit, he'll do a reading close to home (and sign his book for me).

A lot of people say they “don't get poetry.” After Richard Blanco gave his reading at the inauguration last week, there was, predictably, something of a backlash: people who dismissed poetry in general with a wave of annoyance and words to this effect: “I don't get poetry, I'll never get poetry, so poetry is irrelevant and stupid.” (Or this whine, on Twitter: “What ever happened to a rhyming poem? This poem at the Inauguration doesn't rhyme at all. It was a glorified term paper.”)

Maybe a lot of people have been unduly traumatized by poetry in their past. They've been forced to read, or, worse, read and analyze, poems that actually are complex, obscure, hard to get. When I was in college, I had to write a paper analyzing Wallace Stevens' poem, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” I wasn't at all sure I was getting the meaning that Stevens intended, but, fortunately, the poem was enigmatic enough to preclude a “one right answer” sort of analysis, and my professor probably wasn't any more confident about it than I was.

Garrison Keillor, in his introduction to Good Poems: American Places, says, “Americans are impatient with riddles and so they give poetry a wide berth, knowing from Miss Fernwood's 8th grade English class that a page of writing with an uneven right margin means a series of jokes with no punch lines, a puzzle with no right answers.”

But, like the majority of the poetry I read, Richard Blanco's “One Today” is not a difficult, inscrutable poem. It is beautiful, heartfelt, and easy to understand. It's very much a “public poem.” If you missed it, read it, or listen to it: it's about unity. (There, that wasn't so hard, was it?) 

As Blanco himself said in an interview with Joe Coscarelli for NY Magazine, “I pride myself on creating work that's accessible....Honestly, I think the poem was even more straight-forward than I typically write.”

That's why I found the knee-jerk I-just-don't-get-it response particularly annoying. (Even my poetry-baffled husband's reaction was positive: “I like it. I get it, and I like it.”) And no reaction was more irritating than Eric Cantor's carefully composed confused expression (and occasional actual lip-curling sneer) throughout the reading.

I don't believe Cantor actually listened to a word of the poem, because if he did listen to it, and he really didn't get it, then we should be seriously rethinking how we assess the intelligence of the people we entrust to run the country. No, instead, I think he had spent the previous evening practicing in a mirror to perfect his “what is this shit, anyway?” expression.

Blanco himself was more charitable. Asked about Cantor's obvious disdain, he said, “Maybe he was just in deep contemplation and overwhelmed with emotion.”

Or maybe Cantor has just never gotten over eighth grade English class.


  1. Have you read any of Stephen Dunn's poems? He is very accessible, and I think you would like him.
    Also, Baron Wormser? he was Maine poet laureate 5 or 10 years ago. Another very accessible poet

  2. I've read (and like) them both...because they ARE in the Good Poems anthologies.

  3. Time to order those books -- I need some good bathroom reading. My family's choice was always the Reader's Digest magazine, but Prof. Moss commented in a class once that reading it turns your brain to mush. Just this weekend I was thumbing through a copy in my parents' bathroom wondering why I don't just subscribe - I think I'll get Garrison's books instead :)