Like many writers, I rely on beta-readers to help me tweak drafts. The beta-readers will read the short story or novel and tell me what they like or didn’t like, and more importantly, why. However, I’ve noticed something strange.
I can always find people to read work I’ve done, whether long or short. Even a novel of four hundred some odd pages will get a few readers, and that is a massive time sink, but surprisingly people will read the entirety of a novel. What I can’t get people to read is poetry. Short or long, I meet considerable resistance with the usual line being, “I don’t really get poetry.”
They don’t understand it? In an artistic form so concerned with creating maximum impact in every single world, the idea that somebody could not understand poetry should be absurd, but there’s this idea that understanding poems is hard. I don’t think this is the reader’s fault, I think it is the fault of the poets.
Most art is full of shitty artists. The common citation is Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crap. Movies, video games, novels, paintings; all genres and mediums are filled with garbage. When we look at movies, to take the first example, it is usually pretty clear when it is crap. Bad writing will strike the ear like a mis-tuned chord on a warped cello. Bad pacing will bore or confuse the audience. Bad cinematography will confuse or outright make the audience dizzy and sick.
When a piece of art fails, it usually does so by either being incoherent or because it fails at either its own rules or the audience’s.
Lack of skill is hard to hide in some media, and easier in others. Poetry may be the easiest to hide because unlike, say, film, poetry has a historical protection built in. As great as modernists like T.S. Elliot and William Carlos Williams were, their poetry wasn’t very easy to understand. This allowed readers to pick any image or feeling they wanted out of the poem and the brilliance of each image conveyed emotions in a powerful and personal way to individual readers.
What Elliot’s imitators failed to understand was that the poem wasn’t obfuscating, but was instead difficult. Not all poetry needs to be easy.
When met with criticism these imitators, instead of going back to the drawing board and fixing their poems, instead started to make the claim that the audience didn’t understand poetry, or wasn’t smart enough to read it. This hearkened back to the 19th Century image of the poet being a starving, misunderstood soul and combined it powerfully with the modern and postmodern fuzziness of meaning that ultimately killed poetry’s readership. It survives mostly in rap music now, and pitifully small and unwieldy verse bombasted out in coffee shops. Thank god for Rap and Hip Hop or we might have lost spoken poetry all together.
Poets are the ones to blame. The writers of this garbage. They can’t keep a beat, they don’t know a thing about meter, their free verse is tepid, they have no control over form, and their subject is high school wailing. They’ll write a sad paragraph, chop it up into lines, and present it as if that was the poem. Since rhyming is out of style, there’s at least no strained endings, but it also means the lines don’t end naturally. They dangle or are cut off abruptly. One wonders if any of these poets ever tried to read their verse out loud.
There are two kinds of shitty poets ruining poetry (three if you count the "the meaning is whatever you want" types, but they're like a stubbed toe compared to the other two amputations of quality); there are the self-aggrandizers, who are more concerned with their image than their art; and there are the self-declared geniuses who are furious nobody understands their brilliance. These categories can overlap, but the more obnoxious one is the faux-genius types because they have a habit of flying into a rage when their work isn’t read.
In the early aughts, E2 had one of these self-proclaimed geniuses writing particularly bad poetry. The poems would inevitably get deleted for not meeting the website’s standards, but he churned hundreds of bad poems a day, and after each one would vanish, he’d assault the site-wide chatterbox with huge rants about the editorial staff, the readers, and would be a general nuisance. In the spirit of fairness, the website let this go on for awhile until he decided the website was in conspiracy against him and declared his intention to basically burn it to the ground. Drama ensued.
Imagine the people who met this guy in real life. The folks who couldn’t block him.
But, let’s not forget the self-aggrandizers. These poets have a brand to sell and that brand is them. If you don’t like their shitty poetry, they’re the person who sniffs airily as they look down their nose at you and say something like, “Oh, well, I guess you wouldn’t get it.” It’s about being better than everyone else and selling themselves. Gross.
The poetry suffers. Nobody wants to read it anymore, and the poetry sections at bookstores are all in one shelf. It’s a shame because there is a lot of great work out there that will never get the attention it deserves. I’m not talking about classics either. Sor Juana, perhaps, or even Bashō, but what about modern poets who are actually good? What poetry have I missed because of the damage these unctuous narcissists have inflicted on the medium?
These idiots have presented themselves as smart, called everybody else an idiot for not understanding their god-awful shit, and have somehow made poetry so inaccessible that nobody is reading it anymore.
Essays are supposed to have conclusions, so here’s one: Stop ruining poetry you shitty, saccharine, mcgonagallic-verse writing douche bags.