Sunday, February 21, 2010

Poetry then and now

Reconnecting with my college English professor has reminded me of the rigor with which we studied poetry back then.  Forty years later I realize that the poetry I like best no longer requires so much effort to understand it.

Was that approach to poetry a thing of the 60’s and 70’s?  We carefully identified metaphors and similes.  We scanned each line to determine the meter that informed the structure of the poem.  We looked for symbolism and we looked for imagery, with the discovery of phallic imagery being tantamount to finding the golden Easter egg.

I recall doing statistical analysis of how various people scanned a select group of poems  in order to write a paper on poetry scansion.  I can’t remember what I concluded.  I can only remember that most people differed somewhat in how they read the poems.

It was just assumed that the likes of Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, and William Yeats had a very hidden agenda when writing their verse, one that only the most persistent could uncover.  Nothing was ever taken at face value.  It was always necessary to ask oneself, “What could he have possibly meant by this?”  (And more often than not it was a HE.)

I think it was this very rigor that convinced many people that they couldn’t read poetry, perhaps that they didn’t even like poetry.

Many years later I discovered Billy Collins (I’m not sure how), and the simplicity and readability of his poems about life and his world instantly appealed to me.  Then I found David Budbill, while sitting out on a front porch of a big country house near Chautauqua conversing with a fine artist.  Mary Oliver seems to be everywhere these days.

All of their poetry has a similar look and feel.  It speaks for itself with little prodding.  The images are every bit as powerful as those I conjured up decades ago, but so much more accessible.

So my question today:  Is the style of these contemporary poets different from that of the old masters or have I changed in my approach to poetry?  I am the first to admit that most things can be read on multiple levels.  Maybe there is a hidden agenda in the modern poetry and I am content to enjoy only what immediately jumps off the page at me.

I wonder how they are teaching poetry in schools and universities these days.  Are more students coming away with a love of poetry instead of a fear of making fools of themselves? 

Have you experienced a similar evolution in your attitude toward poetry or perhaps your choice of poets?


Blogger Kristin said...

The better I understand myself, the better I think I understand poets. Though, I'm completely comfortable admitting that maybe I don't understand anything at all.

Mary Oliver really does resonate, though.

8:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never felt drawn to "dense" poetry; although, in my mid-teens I loved dense fiction, then in my twenties starting preferring Raymond Carver to Faulkner, Gary Snyder and e. e. cummings (and later, Mary Oliver) to Shakespeare, even, on most days. My mother's favorite poet was the very accessible Emily Dickinson, and I read several of her poems at my mom's graveside funeral.

The older I get, the more I prefer elegant clarity over "obvious craft" in writing -- a crystalline turn of phrase that exquisitely communicates something specific or heartfelt, without the writer's effort being tangible. I bleep past dense poetry and virtually all fiction (except movies) at this point in my life. :-)


2:49 PM  
Blogger Pauline said...

Former Poet Laureate of the US, Billy Collins, has a poetry website called Poetry 180 ( I studied poetry for my masters with Ron Koertge, another contemporary poet with several books to his credit. It was great fun. I'd never written poetry and like you, was put off a bit by having to dissect it to death in high school. Now I have enough original poems to fill a book and often recite them at an artsy fartsy open mic night two towns over. One of the best books about poetry I've ever read is Western Wind by John Frederick Nims.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kristin -- I'm a big Mary Oliver fan too.

Anon -- I agree that dense no longer serves me well. It's not that I want to be spoon fed; I just don't want to struggle to comprehend.

Pauline -- I have a book of 180 poetry, much of which is excellent.

I would put much of what you write right up there with the contemporary giants. You really should publish a book of your poems. They are so beautiful and so accessible.

12:10 AM  
Blogger Pauline said...

Thank you Barbara! I've thought of self-publishing a book of my poetry much the way I self-published a book of my newspaper columns, but the process is expensive so it will have to wait. Getting poetry published is a difficult business. I should send some out to contests and magazines first - it's the easiest way to get noticed. I'll let you know if I ever do that -

4:31 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

I loved "Western Wind," Pauline -- that was the book we used in my AP English class in high school. I saved it for years!

I think styles of writing change over time. Fiction has become less dense and easier to read in recent decades, and poetry has done the same. Hasn't all art, in fact, moved away from classicism to a more expressive, simplified mode? (Not always accessible, but outwardly more simple.)

5:11 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Pauline -- I hope you follow through on publishing some of your work, if for nothing else as a legacy to your grandchildren!

Steve -- I like the shift to an more expressive, simplified mode.

9:17 PM  

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