Posts Tagged ‘dada’

20 Reasons to Write or Read a Poem (besides commemorating a life event or making a buck)

This is a follow-up to my last post, “Indeed, Why Poetry?” which was a response to Daniel Halpern’s essay, “A Few Questions for Poetry,” that began with the mother of all questions: “Why poetry?” I don’t mean to start an argument, but I thought I ought to offer a few more answers to that question and give a few examples. So here goes:

  1. Just for fun: consider the ludic forms like the limerick or light verse
  2. To poke fun at all the serious poets who worry that poetry is becoming extinct: read some Dada
  3. To get laid: if you can’t make a buck, write a sonnet
  4. To rant: sometimes poets just need to complain
  5. To struggle with your soul: try Dante, Petrarch, Milton to name a few
  6. To complain about not getting laid and then struggle with your soul: definitely Petrarch, maybe John Berryman, and about a million others
  7. To focus your mind: any meditative poetry (any poetry)
  8. To focus attention on something that usually goes unnoticed: haiku
  9. To explore language in new combinations and push meaning: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, Surrealists, among many others.
  10. To make a political point: see e. e. cummings, Amiri Baraka, Poets Against the Vietnam War, etc.
  11. To praise a person, idea, or object: odes or elegies
  12. To save the planet: eco-poetry
  13. To come to terms with a work of art: ekphrastic poetry
  14. To celebrate being alive
  15. To contemplate death
  16. To celebrate and explore your culture or identity
  17. For the challenge of saying exactly what you meant to say in as few words as possible
  18. For the discovery of saying what you never expected to say
  19. Because you’re tired of inane tweets
  20. Because you have a typewriter, fresh ribbon, paper, and time on your hands

Thanks for that last one to the guy in the coffee shop in Orange City, Iowa, who wrote me an impromptu poem one morning a couple of summers ago. I’m cheating a little with that, since he did make a buck or two tip out of that deal, but I suspect he did it less for the money than to while away the time and to rise to the challenge of composing a decent poem on the spur of the moment. He also ran a poetry series, though we couldn’t stay in town for that, and if I remember right, he was involved with a small literary magazine or two. Once poets get the bug, the main answer to the question “Why poetry?” often seems to be “Because poetry.”

The list above is hardly exhaustive, and I suspect there are many more reasons to write or read a poem: as many as there are moments in a day, days in a life, and different experiences that fill those moments. There’s nothing wrong with using a poem to commemorate an important life event or even with trying to earn a few dollars writing poems. My point has been that to describe poetry only in those terms is to limit it, and that commercial success is the wrong criterion to use to judge its worth. Poetry is like eating or breathing. Most people don’t earn a living doing either activity, yet we could not live without them.

Poetry is serious and poetry is frivolous. It can be both simultaneously, and it can be so many other things. It can be written for any of the reasons listed above and more, or for any combination of reasons. So I will end with Halpern’s question: “Why poetry?”

I’ve given twenty answers — what are yours?

Recommendations from a Poetry Contest

One of the most fun things for me in judging the Davenport Poetry prize at Knox College was talking with young poets about other poets they could read. I did try to write those names in my comments, but I’ve also thought of a few more that I might add, so I wanted to post some suggestions here. Several poets were interested in exploring surrealism, and a couple had seen the artwork of Joan Miró and Paul Klee and written poems inspired by them. That’s great, and I hope they continue to explore surrealism in the visual arts or other art movements that might inspire their poetry.

Surrealist poets ought to go back to the source and find out where surrealism started. I suggested to one poet that Robert Desnos would be good to read, and of course, André Breton. A couple of other important surrealist poets are Paul Eluard, Philippe Soupault, and Pierre Reverdy. Besides the surrealists, though, I would suggest going back a little further to the cubist poets that preceded them: Guillaume Apollinaire has always been one of my favorites, and of course Blaise Cendrars.

These are all French writers. Since I also am interested in Belgian (Flemish- and French-language) writers, I would recommend Emile Verhaeren and Paul Van Ostaijen.

Other writers at Knox were influenced by the work of Gertrude Stein. I was pleased to see that she resonates with this generation. For those who are interested in pursuing this avenue in poetry, I would suggest exploring the Language poets, particularly Susan Howe and Lyn Hejinian. I would also recommend the experimental narrative poems of C. D. Wright. I would also recommend going back to the roots of this kind of poetry by exploring the sound poems of Hugo Ball and by reading the work of other Dada poets, Emmy Hennings, Hans Arp, Francis Picabia, Tristan Tzara (also a Surrealist, later), Kurt Schwitters.

Finally, in one conference I mentioned the linguist who has been most influential in my thinking on poetry: Roman Jakobson, whose essay on the Linguistic of Poetry (with sections on grammar, meter, and rhyme) is foundational. Wide-ranging and multi-lingual, Jakobson surveys how poetry has developed in many traditions and looks to the core issues of what makes language poetic.