‘He Doesn’t Hide Things’

U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins doesn’t hide things like lesser poets do, according to poet Stephen Dunn. “He allows us to overhear, clearly, what he himself has discovered.” Read some of his work on this author’s blog, and note this poem on Poets.org called, “Introduction to Poetry.”

“. . . But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.”

Do people care about poetry anymore? Do they want only to know what a poet is trying to say and care nothing about beautiful words? [HT to SB]

9 thoughts on “‘He Doesn’t Hide Things’”

  1. My oh-so-humble opinion is that when structure (e.g. rhythm and rhyme) went out of style, people stopped thinking it was beautiful. They stopped caring about what the poet had to say, too.

  2. Poetry is one of the main reasons I love listening to Bob Dylan’s music. He entwines multiple layers of meaning in ways that get you thinking. When he sings, “I’ll be with you when the deal goes down,” is it a love song from one lover to another or a word of comfort from a Savior to his disciples?

  3. I’m not sure that what Loren says is absolutely true: though I’m a lover of formal poetry, there are some beautiful poems in free verse, and people recognize them as beautiful. Some of them are not “pretty,” but they are beautiful. (I’m thinking right now, kind of randomly, of mid-career poems by people like James Wright and W.S. Merwin — though I don’t like much of Merwin’s later work, “For the Anniversary of My Death” is a haunting poem). And where there is something to say, people care what it is.

    The problem maybe is — well, I think there are two separate problems, to tell you the truth. One is the reader’s problem of trying to “sum up” a poem, which is always going to be reductive, because good poems mean on so many levels, and on many levels the meaning is more like a resonance than a straight, sum-uppable narrative. That’s what Billy Collins means, I think, by “torturing a confession” out of a poem.

    The second is the poet’s problem of really, maybe, not having that much to say every time he sits down to write a poem. It’s been a while since I read that much contemporary poetry, but long ago I used to work for a literary magazine, and it’s my recollection that a lot of what came across our desk — and I’m talking about the good stuff we got — had that postmodern disease of being about language but not much else.

    And I agree with Greybeard. Actually, my favorite line in a Bob Dylan song is just an evocative one: “Crickets talking back and forth in rhyme.” It’s not, like, deep or anything, but I take deep pleasure in hearing it.

  4. I wonder too, if the dearth of poetry isn’t a backlash to the overwhelming deluge of saccharine sappy verse that has inundated us from the hallmark set.

    Another thought is that much poetry is theraputic for the writer but much of the meaning is lost on readers who don’t have the experience base of the poem’s creator. For example, my sister-in-law churned out reams of poetry while grieving over the loss of a child that had been born with spina bifida and lived only 2 1/2 years. She got a few items published and I put one to music for her, but the vast majority of it went into her personal files, never to be seen again till her kids clean out her desk someday. Then, one day, she stopped writing poetry. Now she sees that as distant phase of her life.

  5. Limited experience base was a complaint of one of my English professors in college. He said much of modern poetry or maybe contemporary poetry was so self-referential that few people outside the poet’s circle of friends had any clue what he was talking about. I’ve often thought, without research to justify it, that people don’t like poetry because they think its merely a complicated form of speech. If a reader breezes through ten pages of poetry and can’t say he understood a thing, he won’t pick it up again.

    But that shows part of the reader’s problem, the desire to breeze through it. If poetry is best taken slowly, if it’s best read aloud or heard from someone else, then many modern readers will reject it because they don’t want to slow down. It isn’t thrilling enough.

  6. Being about language and little else, that would be maddening to me, unless I felt comfortable enough to declare the poem to be about interesting verbiage sounds and nothing more. I wrote an essay in college about language having meaning, even when those who say they aren’t saying anything are writing, like Dadaists. They put in words with actual meaning and letters that sound close to real words and inescapably conjure images for the reader. So it will always sound as if a poem is saying something, even if it isn’t.

  7. I think “limited experience base” is a fair comment. It’s also true, however, that as good poetry is in one way or another in conversation with its tradition, readers are disadvantaged by their own ignorance of that tradition. Poets who evoke Dante, Homer, etc, may be charged with “elitism,” for borrowing allusions from literature of the dim and distant past, but that charge lets readers off the hook of having to bring any knowledge to the reading of the poem, or to work to learn something about what the poem is saying.

    It’s discouraging news for poetry that we seem to have less and less common knowledge embedded in the culture, or even a shared ground-level sense of written English, such as would be derived from, say, everyone’s knowing passages from the King James Bible, or knowing famous hymns, because they’d read or sung them at school, which of course largely doesn’t happen any more.

    Phil — what you describe makes me think, for example, of the poetry of John Ashbery, which I guess I just don’t get . . . it “moves” by free-association, and puts words and images together in “playful” ways, and that’s fun for five minutes, but clearly I must be missing something . . .

    We don’t deliberately memorize poetry in our house, but my kids can spout lots of (mostly funny) verse, all of it rhymed and metered, because that’s easy to imprint on your mind even when you aren’t trying, and it’s fun to say.

  8. Yes, I don’t fault literature I understand to be difficult, making allusions to strong literature and classics. I remember another of my professors saying some books need help to be fully enjoyed. Some books may deliver a good, stirring story, but you will get far more from it if you read it with a studied reader like an English prof. or experienced group. That would apply to poetry too.

    All of that may argue against my blogging and for my reading.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.