Thursday, April 6, 2017

It's Hard to Find Good Bad Poetry

A few weeks before my wedding, I had a strange dream. (I don't think the timing of it was significant in any way, but the fact that it was close to such an auspicious day dates it in my mind.) I woke up with a positive hunger-- a ravenous hunger-- to read mediocre free verse poetry.

The kind of poetry I wanted to read was introspective, dreamy, self-indulgent, and conveying the immediacy of the moment. It didn't have to be accomplished-- in fact, anyone could write such poetry, I was sure.

So why didn't I just write some myself? Well, it seems to be the nature of human beings that some things are much better coming from other people. Like praise, reassurance, conversation..

I'd encountered some poetry like this before. I'm going to be rather braggy now and say that, from my early teens, I had a taste for serious poetry and I knew the difference between bad poetry and good poetry. I never really took free verse poetry seriously (with very few exceptions).

But occasionally I would come across a free verse poem which spoke to me. For instance, I remember my father bringing home a booklet of poems written by local poets. Some of them moved me. There was one poem about a mother bringing home a gift to a child which almost brought me to tears, even though I knew it wasn't at all accomplished.

The first poem we studied in secondary school was called "First Day at Boarding School" by Prunella Power. I knew it wasn't proper poetry, but the fact that we were analyising poetry makes it memorable for me, and it did have a naive charm. One line from it sticks in my mind, and has come to stand for the particular sort of free verse poetry that appeals to me. A girl who has grown up form Africa is overwhelmed by the bustle in the boarding school, and wonders:

What could they know
Of Africa's space and silence?

No much skill required to write such a line; but it does convey an immediacy and individuality of experience. It's poignant. I like the idea that five words can conjure up one person's experience of a continent, and the drama of a particular person's change of circumstances.

So I went looking for such poetry. I went looking for it on the shelves of the library where I work, which is full of volumes of free verse poetry-- both by award-winning poets with university residences, and self-published volumes by poets' groups and individuals.

I couldn't find it!

I found a lot of poetry that was obscure to the point of impenetrability.

I found a lot of poetry that was almost purely descriptive-- simply a string of matter-of-fact statements.

I found a lot of elongated poetry-- poems full of short lines, the poems themselves running on for pages and pages.

I found (in the self-published stuff) a lot of poems written in rhyme and metre which probably would have been better as free verse-- the authors lacked the skill to write formal verse, and had resorted to filler lines, tortured syntax, and contrived rhymes. The result was that the poetry was childish rather than child-like.

But I didn't find the kind of naive poetry I was looking for.

C.S. Lewis once wrote, in an essay on "Pilgrim's Progress", that simplicity is hard to achieve-- that, when he worked as a censor on soldier's letters home during one of the World Wars, he was struck by how many literary clich├ęs they contained. They were not direct, fresh and naive as he expected.

How strange it is, that it should be hard to find mediocre free verse poetry!

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