News Flash: Poets in their soul of souls know a lot of poems stink

The secret is out. Poets in their soul of souls don’t like a lot of poetry.

A month of Sundays ago, over at J. Lynn Sheridan’s poetry blog, Writing on the Sun,  was a breezy post called, Secrets from a Poet. She began an occasional series on why people don’t like to read poetry. As I suspected and Sheridan confirmed, many if not most people experience poetry as a gigantic bag of wind.

The week before she posted that her husband had admitted he didn’t like poetry and she wanted to know why. She posted his reasons: “It doesn’t make sense.” “He doesn’t understand it.” “It’s boring.” She also included many comments from readers who share their reasons for their poetic antagonisms. Then, she did the unexpected, the improbable and the shocking. She admitted that even she, a poet herself, not only sympathizes with these sentiments but that a whole lot of poetry leaves her less than inspired. I couldn’t agree with her more.

Poetic false steps

Sheridan listed her poetic complaints: too sentimental, too inauthentic, too preachy, too ambling. This is a good summing up of some basic complaints. I might add my pet peeve here: too clichéd. Poems made of trite comments or overused words or well-worn phrases and ideas past their prime are guaranteed to disappoint. Banality is with us in daily life and speech. We don’t need it in poetry. To put is another way, there are too many hamburgers on too many menus.

One of the things we go to poetry for is language shorn of rot. Pulp wood is not good for trees or for firewood or for paper making or for making poems, (though apparently the food industry has convinced cracker makers that we can eat it). Poets should remain vigilant and keep pulp out of their poems or the paper their poems are written on will quickly end up a fresh sheet of blank paper or a tasteless cracker.

Though I would never say never use a cliché or overused word in a poem, for fear some smartypants poet will pull one out of his drawers, like these guys (Billy Collins, Sir Westy West), and do something novel with it. The point is a poet invigorates language with new and novel associations. No one likes breathing stale air and, to belabor the point, no one who is alive ever breathes the same air twice. Why should a poem?

So how many clichés can you find in this post?

How often do you find yourself using a cliché in daily speech?

What is your complaint about poorly written poetry?

Let me know
what you think.
Leave a comment below.


16 responses to “News Flash: Poets in their soul of souls know a lot of poems stink

  1. I totally agree with this! I’ve been taking some poetry workshops at the UofA, and cliche is one of the biggest struggles for all of us students. I think the reason that people are often afraid to call out bad poetry is the personal nature of poetry. We’re afraid the poet may take it personally if we didn’t get anything out of their poem, or if we felt like we didn’t hear or experience anything new. My poetry teacher always told us that the point of poetry isn’t to “get” it, but rather it is a documentation of the human imagination. I like to think of poetry this way, because I think it refrains from putting limitations on poetry. Poetry isn’t supposed to be like pop music where the message hits you over the head in the first five seconds, and I think this is what I love the most about poetry. I think there is the common opinion that anyone can sit down and write a poem, that there is no “wrong” or standard of quality, but I completely disagree. I think anyone can write poetry, but I think it’s a lot more complicated than writing your feelings down in the form of stanzas. It takes inspiration, revision, and a lot of hard work. Art in general is hard work if it’s done well. I’m still on the long journey of figuring out how to do that.

    • Amanda, you make some great points. I’ll cling to the hope we can discuss poems without making a poet feel inadequate or hostile, though some poets can’t help being offended and some teachers can’t help being rude – human limitations being what they are. The grace of encouragement is as tricky to achieve as the art of poetry.
      Our everyday language is saturated with cliché so I am not too quick to fault folks who do not think the use of them is verboten, lest I become a poetic pig.
      ‘Documenting the human imagination’ is an adequate way to think of poetry, though the phrase has onerous legalistic connotations and might morph in practice to an attempt to categorize the intangible.
      I think you are keen to the idea that poetry cannot be reduced to a formula. Thank the muse, that demure creature, for this. She doesn’t reveal herself often enough to be easily defined. Bless her soul.
      Thanks for gracing this blog.

  2. Thanks for the write-up and for keeping this conversation going. I like the image of not breathing the same air twice. You’re absolutely right. It takes work to come up with fresh phrasing and we do ourselves no favors by reheating the leftovers.

    • J. Lynn , thanks for starting this off and continuing it. If your blog was a book I do not think I could put it down. I apologize for not commenting more. I’m still trying to learn things like reblogging and finding fresh air to breathe.

    • K. I’m very selfish. My complaint with cliché is directed toward me first and the heathen poetic horde second. Thanks for visiting.

  3. Wonderful conversation and main reason my poetry was always a private endeavor-whereas I wrote in other genres – having also been a teacher of English (would have been pilloried back then for saying an English teacher) by those same masses of colleagues whose colluded in murdering all passion for the poetic in the name of ‘education’ and “correct interpretation.” Having said, this and having moved on in years and changing careers – I came to see believe that (and I’ve written this elsewhere).. that poetry most closely approximates the way in which we humans or more precisely this human, thinks, in a mutli-level, multi-directional, simultaneous combination of cognitive and felt image which is instantly and intrapsychically translated into understandable experience – poetry is the only medium of linguistic communication that comes close to approximates this confluence of thought,image, and emotion in direct contrast to linear expression which is necessary for clear, precise exchanging of information and/or ideas (prose). I found that as a psychoanalyst there was often a struggle in those who sought to express complicated experience – poetry is, in my – okay – not so humble opinion – a manner of communication as much as an ‘art” form that assists in being able to share a personal vision of the world with another. Obviously this would obviate (poetic huh?- nah?) the cliche and enhance the possibility of the unique and fresh voice that is attempting to somehow articulate, in this particularly unique medium … something new… Poetic cliche, trying too hard and all the other complaints one might find, I have noticed (sometimes under my own name! although at those infrequent times I plead an alter-ego) have a direct relationship to one who is striving for “technical perfection’ rather than communicating in this afore-described alternate ‘language” or simply translating what the “Muse” or wherever such writings originate outside the poet vehicle. Okay, enough blathering… interesting thread…agree there is much junk out there .. as there is wretched singing on televised competitions and a culture where anyone who “tries” is a “winner” … Cream will rise as will air bubbles… those who want and need to write will continue …there will be some gems there will be many stones … the words will continue to flow…and here I go (had to get in some grace saving self-depracating nonsense of my own .. in this pompous sounding treatise. Forgive me … I’m in a rambling mood… truly do respect honest statements and conversations.

    • Poetry is a nuanced form of communication, yes. Great ramblings. (I wish I knew your name and your web site/blog.) Thank you for this wonderful summation and addition to the dialogue. I love so many things here I think I’ll use them as a platform to launch into some future blog posts. “Cream will rise as will air bubbles…those who want and need to write will continue…there will be some gems, there will be many stones … the words will continue to flow….” Wonderful. Everyone has an opportunity to write poetry. Some will create new vistas, new worlds to overthrow the old. Some not.
      Poets create images to see what, by instinct, they know is there but can not yet grasp. Yearning for the impossible is necessary for a poet to discern and disable illusions, phantoms and gadflies. Cliches tend to legitimize sentimentality, banality, naivete and denial — all poor soil and vermin to a poet’s flowering.

  4. I never looked at it that way before, but as I think about it… I have found myself not finishing a poem I was reading because it was boring me. I was feeling a bit guilty since I thought as a poet, I should want to read the whole thing.Now I know I’m not alone.

    • If it can’t hold your attention, chuck it.
      That said, there are many poems I’ve come to adore and appreciate that at first reading I thought were impossible.
      I think the longer we live and read poems the more poems open up to us.
      I apologize for not getting over to your blog more often. I’ve been treading water lately.

      • So true… and I have done that in the past, going back to read poems that I originally couldn’t, to find that they weren’t as bad. I think it depends on our mood at the time. You have to be willing to give it your full attention. I was usually distracted when reading those poems. Then, there are those that are unreadable no matter how many times you try!

        No need to apologize! With so many good blogs out there and so little time… we can’t expect to visit them all the time.

      • Reading poetry is an acquired taste. Much poetry read when I was young was wasted on me. Either I wasn’t listening or did not have the capacity to hear what was being read. I remember hearing Robert Bly in the mid-70’s and was impressed by his presence and playfulness with the audience but could not comprehend much of his poetry. That changed over time but still some of his latest work again stretches my ability to comprehend and appreciate. Which is another way of saying, my poetic sixth sense has room to expand. Thanks for stopping by and making these great comments.

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