Don’t you just hate really earnest poetry? I don’t mean the seriousness and melodrama of the Victorians, or the obliqueness of the Modernists, or even the loony bullshit of sound poets (well, okay, maybe I mean the loony bullshit of sound poets): I’m talking about the work of late-comers, the kind of folks whose work doesn’t show any sense of self-awareness, of irony, of humour, or wit. I hate that kind of poetry.
So of course when I sit down to write a poem, that’s pretty much all that comes out. Even worse: most of the time my poetry winds up being about women I’ve loved, or almost loved, or who loved me, or might have loved me, whether I want it to be or not. I make a conscious choice to write about, say, a tree, and by the end I’m writing about how ACYL broke my heart. Some of my fiction winds up that way too, but there mostly I know how to excise that nonsense and get on with the job at hand. In verse? Not a chance. It’s not that these are inherently bad subjects to write about, it’s just that Jesus Christ, man, get a fucking grip already.
I’m also fascinated by structure, so I write a lot of sonnets (well, a lot in terms of a percentage of the poetry I write; I don’t write a lot of poetry anymore) and so on. I’ve even developed my own version based on the Sapphic stanza, because I am in love with Anne Carson’s book If Not, Winter. And yet my sonnets don’t develop ideas smoothly, if they develop them at all, my haiku don’t crystallize, and my imagery doesn’t cohere.
It’s especially frustrating because years at university taught me how to write, and write well, about poetry, at least in an academic context. (I’m a fiction specialist because I like it more, but I actually wrote more about poetry while a student, mostly because you could say more about fewer words.) So I know, on an intellectual level, what elements tend to go in poems that I really like. I know how ideas are supposed to develop in specific structures. I know about different forms and line, and how spacing and emphasis and feet and so on affect readings. And then I sit down and write juvenile nonsense that is full of clichés.
I also struggle with trying to separate feelings I’ve had and want to express from the events they are entangled with. That, at least, is a problem I know that better writers than me struggle with, because I’ve read enough to know that what may resonate for me as a huge betrayal or a huge moment of triumph might just be trite or pointless or dull to you. And that’s okay, because we’re talking about stuff that’s experiential. But as I see it, my job when I write fiction or poetry (as opposed to criticism or blog posts) is not, absolutely not, to validate or legitimize my feelings and experiences to an audience. I mean, on the one hand, fuck those guys, I don’t need them to validate anything. And on the other hand, who the hell am I? No audience has any obligation to care about my feelings or experiences. No, my job is to try my best to bridge the gap between what I understand and feel into something they understand and feel. And hopefully there will be some overlap, and we’ll understand and feel some of the same things, and that will be awesome. But getting them to understand and feel anything is a victory, really. But because I have a really hard time separating my experiences, feelings, and understanding—because those are different things, even though they have complex relationships with each other—then I can’t really untangle them when I try to bridge that gap. So if I’m trying to get across the feeling of betrayal, I really only have the mechanics of a certain kind of experience to rely on, because to me, the feeling and the experience are one and the same.
So here is a terrible poem. I wrote it today, and there are a lot of things I hate about it. It falls into some (but thankfully not all) of the traps I’ve mentioned above, but because I wrote it, I think there’s something in there that needs to get out, and not just onto a page where only I can read it.
Sonnet for a Complicated Friendship
Fortune authorized me to seek you out.
“Go forth,” it said, or words to that effect.
I joined OKCupid and set about
Meeting people, being less circumspect.
But of course I didn’t find you there. Fate
Has never made us lovers; our doom lies
Elsewhere, in other arms, with other hates
Germinating behind some other eyes.
We met at a company party. Your
Almost-drunk chatter about anal sex
May have been defensive, may have been for
Fun, but all I saw was the reflex,
A vulnerability too long borne.
You saw, too, where I was broken and worn.