Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Good Poetry (for a change)

Indianapolis is hosting the 3rd National Gathering of Poets Laureate, in which the Poets Laureate of the states which have such a post all Gather. Nationally. For the Third time. As part of the gathering, the Artsgarden is hosting a series of poetry readings. While I'm normally opposed to poetry, I'm actually enjoying the readings. While the position of Poet Laureate is a political office (that is, it's not necessarily held by the state's best poet, but by the poet who's best at networking and selling himself), I've been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the poetry so far. One thing you can definitely say about the people in the post of Poet Laureate: they're all expert poets. Again, this isn't a measure of quality, but of skill. Poetry is, essentially, a spoken form. Poetry read aloud should flow better and make more sense than poetry written down, and the poets this week are all extremely good at reading poetry aloud. It's a skill more poets should learn. Clever typesetting and odd use of capital letters are signs of poets who have given up on poetry as a spoken form. I haven't seen any of this week's poems written down, but I suspect they aren't oddly arranged on the page; they're clearly written to be read aloud, not seen in print.

I've had people act surprised when I mention that I don't like poetry. I do have an English degree, after all; isn't it a bit heretical (or even hypocritical) for an English major to not love poetry? No, it turns out. Because we've heard the worst of the worst. There's a lot more terrible poetry than average poetry, and much more average poetry than good poetry. And the median quality for poetry is so low for a very good reason: it's impossible to get honest feedback on poetry. Workshops are awful. Most people won't ever directly mention when you're doing something wrong, generally from the fear that if they criticize another writer's poems, their own will get taken apart as well. And certain people are vitriolic about everyone's poems, for the same reason these people troll on the internet. Improvement in any field is dependent on an accurate appraisal of one's errors, strengths, and weaknesses, and accurate appraisals are sorely lacking in poetry circles.

Improvement is also dependent on having good models to follow. And the quality (even of published poetry) is so haphazard that it's hard for a beginner to tell what to emulate and what to avoid. One's poetry tends to be a mirror of one's taste in poetry, downshifted to match one's skill with language. So, yeah -- in the process of getting the big, bad English degree, I've heard enough bad, pompous, overbearing, irritatingly alliterative (my personal pet peeve: "gray-green [anything that starts with gr-]"), poorly-written poetry to last me a lifetime or two. Therefore, I tend to avoid poetry. Because it's statistically likely that any poetry I hear will be of the terrible or mediocre varieties.

That said, though, the poets laureate did a good job and I enjoyed their work.

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