On perspectives about poetry
I don’t know about the public perspective at large—they’re not a monolith, so in a way this is an impossible question to answer—but most of my students aren’t writing or English majors, so I can use them as a limited cross section here.
Most of my students come into my classes not having read poetry outside of a high school classroom (except perhaps as a greeting card), and most of what they read then was pretty formal and perhaps not very dense. Often they think of poems as puzzles to be unlocked wherein they will discover a Truth! that will make all the difference. And certainly some poems attempt to do that, though most don’t.
The other misconception (I’m giving you two) that many outside the literary community have about poetry is the idea that it’s not for them. And they have reason. Poetry reminds me of jazz, in a way, in that there’s great variety in styles and approaches, and yet very little of it has a massive following. Smooth jazz appeals to one kind of listener and free jazz another and swing yet another and so on. You can find poetry’s influence in all manner of writing, just as you can find jazz underneath most musical forms today, but few people spend time with the source material outside the practitioners.
I’m not suggesting this is a marketing failure, by the way—it could be that this is just the nature of the art form. But I can’t tell you the number of students I’ve had who’ve told me at the end of a semester that they’d never been interested in poetry before who’ve since bought collections, just because they’d never been exposed to a style or type of poetry that made them go “wow! Language can do that?!” the way E. E. Cummings did to me in my junior year of high school.
As for people inside the literary community, well, again, we’re not a monolith, but I think sometimes we’re a little doom and gloom. I think that when our literary grandchildren look back on this period—the early 21st century—they’ll recognize it as a moment as alive and explosive for poetry at the Modernist period a century previous. I think we’re in the middle of a fundamental shift in the way poetry is written and published and expressed and a lot of it has to do with the digital landscape we’re working in now.
At the most basic level, I want dense language that punches me in the feels, which means there has to be a person back there somewhere I can access through the poem. I want to see a mind at work feeling out the word options, teasing out the grammar. The poem is a made thing, and I want to see the hand of the maker in it, disguised, hidden, but unmistakably there.
I really don’t know what perception people have of the poetry section of The Rumpus and our content. What I hope is that they value the book reviews we publish, and that they recognize the wide range of poetry we cover. I aim for diversity both in the books we cover and in the people who cover them for us, and diversity for me extends beyond gender and ethnicity and sexual orientation. It includes looking at the many, many schools of poetry that inhabit the world, and I also try to cover both new poets just getting started and more established poets well along in their careers.
I published a review a couple of years ago that I’d done a really sloppy job of editing. It was filled with factual errors that, if I’d spent just a little more time on, I’d have caught, but I didn’t. The author of the book pointed them out to me and I wound up having to pull the review because it was so off there was no saving it. I felt embarrassed, but even more than that, I felt like I’d let both the author and my reviewer down, because I hadn’t protected him from himself, and I feel like that’s part of the job. What I’ve learned from that is, if I’m overwhelmed with work, it’s better to run nothing at all than to run something that isn’t ready.
Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is the Poetry Editor for The Rumpus, and teaches poetry at Drake University.
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