Not all English majors are endowed with irreproachable spelling, grammar, punctuation, and a love of all things literary. Not all of us call ourselves writers because we write (all literate people write, right?). Not all of us mix the ink we write with from our own blood, sweat, and tears and the paint-peeling walls of our bohemian rhapsodies.
Some of us would rather restructure the military than remember how to spell the word “lieutenant” (trust the French) and see nothing wrong with grammatical sins like split infinitives, end-of-sentence preps, or Oxford commas. Some of us have literally earned the right to call ourselves writers by being paid to write. Some of us mix nothing but metaphors. And some of us are ambivalent about poetry.
There. I said it.
As an English major, I read Shakespeare and the other Bible from cover to cover (it saved time). I took Chaucer and 17th-Century Poetry and Prose. I discovered that some hack named Milton stole my idea about Satan’s fall from grace 400 years before I thought of it (apparently, he needed the head start). I learned how to explicate a text to within an inch of its life—to strip it of everything but discrimination, bigotry, racism, sexism, chauvinism, patriarchy, and every other watchword that deconstructionists have used to abuse knowledge and destroy the past. Even that didn’t stop me from unearthing one of my old anthologies to reread Beowulf for fun.
Yet, I still can’t tell you what makes poetry “good” or “bad” any more than I can explain why free verse isn’t just poetic prose that’s been randomly put in lines. I mean, what do the lines really add except confusion? Why not use paragraphs? Paragraphs have lines. All writing has lines.
All writing is written in lines.
Words to live by. Also this poem inspired by 17th-Century Poetry and Prose (and the eternal quest for a parking spot on my impacted campus).
Modern views of poetry have followed the same path as every art. Again, I quote myself:
We say “boring” when we mean “difficult.” Instead of disciplining ourselves to master the skills we lack, we redefine greatness to make it more attainable and call our laziness “modernity.” Thus, the sculptures of da Vinci and Michelangelo give way to the Fountain, the music of Mozart and Beethoven stands aside for The Beatles, and the poetry of Shakespeare and Milton is replaced with the art of making no sense at all. By freeing one’s mind of rules, it’s possible to achieve both the laziness necessary for modern greatness and the vagueness necessary for modern art.
At the risk of being clear, “good” poetry is poetry that I like and “bad” poetry could well be the poetry that I write. You can get more of “the good stuff” next week on The Scribbler and some of “the bad stuff” now on my Patreon.
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