I’ve concluded that Contemporary American poetry, from the 90s onward, simply doesn’t go as far as it used to. Recently, I’ve come to read a few contemporary poetry collections; the same issue has come up within all of them. There will be an image, a sentence, that seems to be penetrating something deep and meaningful (maybe even original), but then it quickly releases itself into a curse word or an idiom. I don’t really understand why.
Nick Mount, speaking on T.S. Eliot and the idea of fragments, said “if fragments are all we have left, then we will make art of fragments.” It’s such a beautiful idea, and one that has been thoroughly adopted into American poetry. In one of those recent contemporary collections, nearly every poem had a fragment of a completely different subject or experience interwoven into it. It seems to me a technique that is done to either add depth, weight, or distance into a poem. What I mean by depth, weight, and distance is very simple. Take the example of a poem about an abusive relationship. The direct event of abuse becomes the skeleton of the piece. To add depth, or muscles, the poet could either add details of the abuse or of their own emotions; interconnecting other events taking place during the abuse. To add in weight, or skin (in my analogy), bring in past events of abuse by other people or maybe even the reverse (the narrator fighting fact); to flesh out the story; bring out the imperfections of the human experience. To add distance, or mobility (I’m making this up as I go along), is to relate the issue to a wider view; relate the abuse to trends within a family, a culture, a society. The problem with the technique is that it is overly and sloppily utilized. Something beautiful could really come out of constructing a poem in the way I just stated, but it takes a command to really bring it to full realization.
This could either be a problem with me (as it is a bias) or the overall mentality with the poetry community (as I see it). It just seems as if building up writing skills, understand the techniques, understanding the history of poetry, reading the classics, or even attempting to grapple with the human condition is labeled as an absurd thing to do. Writing poetry must come quick. Collections must be made at rapid pace. Getting your personality, or your political stance, out there is much more important. It’s the only explanation to some of the celebrated writers out there today. However, I’m not saying that if you do have the skills and knowledge that you’re automatically a good poet; nor am I saying if you have the opposite you can’t be a good poet. Sometimes those too stuck with rigid practices make the worst poems, while those inexperienced (especially kids) make poems that give you pause. I just think that the overall scene promotes sides to be taken, when we really should be considering the quality of a work.
I’ll end this with one example. I am currently reading Rafael Campo’s What the Body Told. He is a Cuban-American writer and doctor. He has won a few awards and been published in several magazines and anthologies. His work mostly focuses on the Medical Humanities. Here is a small excerpt:
Protected in your arms, I dreamed while death
Passed overhead. I guessed I was alive,
Because I heard how faintly in your breath
My name kept being said. We fell in love
When love was not protection in itself; […]
It’s a nice beginning to a decent poem. However, it seems to become too simplistic. It was the first line that blew me away… or I should say it the way I read it wrongly. I read it as: “Protected in your arms, I dreamed while death.” The enjambment really does the poem a disservice. It just becomes something close to cliché, though the subject is what sets it apart from other poems (Homosexuality, AIDS). And overall, that has been my issue with this book. In and of themselves, the poems must be dissected thoroughly to bring out the beauty. I think a poem is definitely fuller if it attempts to grab the writer at the get go, but continues to be beautiful the further the poem is read into. It is a quality nearly every classic poem has. So why not strive to reach that mark?
Well, that’s all I have to say on this for now.