Sunday, February 8, 2009

What Makes a Good Poem?

A lot of talk about Elizabeth Alexander’s inauguration poem, “Praisesong for the Day.” Some people liked it, some didn’t. If you pass by over the next few days, do participate in our poll! I’ll save my comments until the results are available. I’ve been thinking about poetry, though, and my ruminations benefited yesterday from a conversation with Dan Varrette, one of the editors at Insomniac Press (thanks, Dan), as well as some eavesdropping online today.

I’ve often found myself remarking, in discussions about poetry, that soldiers in WWI took books of poetry with them into the trenches. Poetry was that important. So, like, maybe that would be a good criterion to apply to a poem? Would you take this poem with you into a war? Would you have wanted to take Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, or a piece of that poem, with you into a war? That’s kind of a tough test but, since some poems at a previous time have passed it, maybe it’s not an unfair measure. How high? That high!

(Worth noting that a lasting body of work emerged from the pens of soldiers in both World Wars…)

There are actually poems that I remember, and am glad to recollect, some from when I was at school, and other poems or bits of poems encountered since. So maybe that could be another criterion. Is this poem, or a part of a poem, something I want to remember? We do remember songs, after all, the truth being that some songs are fine poems: think Bob Marley, the Beatles, Leonard Cohen.

What I’m wondering is whether it’s inevitable that people’s taste in poetry, their expectations of a poem and their ideas about the good-and-bad-of-it, be determined by where they are from, their history, their language(s) and their culture. For some people, poetry is a way of finding out who they are (Césaire’s "Qui et quel nous sommes?"), and thinking through their history. There’s the famous Walcott quote from “A Far Cry from Africa” that puts the matter up front and personal:

I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa, and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?

Brother Bob’s “Redemption song” reports that never mind our history of being stolen and forcibly relocated…

Old pirates, yes, they rob I;
Sold I to the merchant ships,
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.

…because of the strong, uplifting hand of the Almighty, triumph is ours and so “We forward in this generation.”

Should all poets address concerns like these? Or is it only people whose history includes oppression and the horrors of slavery, deracination and forced relocation across oceans and continents — and if not those precise subjects, versions thereof?

Is England’s Philip Larkin looking, albeit with a much tighter lens, and from a somewhat different angle, at who we are and how our history informs us in his bad-behave poem, “This Be the Verse”?

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

These and similar questions beg to be asked. Does white people’s poetry have to be different from the poetry of black people? Does the poetry of black and white people have to be different from the poetry of native people? What about gay people? Women? Men? Do they all write separate poetries?

Are some poets preoccupied with ‘new and different’ because for them poems need no longer bear any serious burdens? If, after all, poems struggle with issues of justice, of unequal relations within and between nations, of racism, classism, gender relations, it would seem that they hardly need to set out to be different. Must they not get there under the terrible strain? And if they don’t, what does it matter? Isn’t the issue whether the words make your hair stand on end, or fail to?

It’s interesting to compare the excerpts from these three poets. Derek Walcott sounds almost histrionic, set against Bob Marley’s laconic recounting of rapine and Larkin’s mischievous — and deadly — counsel to us to abandon the reproductive enterprise. But the anguish that wrenches Walcott’s questions from his gut emanates from a history of capture, abduction, and plantation slavery that more than supports it. The shrieks are warranted. If Bob’s tempo is different, he’s singing the same tune. And Larkin’s little nursery rhyme delivers the most terrifying verdict of all: misery is our inheritance, and so we should just stop. Period.

Interestingly enough, all three use rhyme (Bob’s rhyme of ‘Almighty’ and ‘triumphantly’ is missing here), and three better practitioners of the Muses’ art it would be hard to pick. More on poetry soon.