April 16, 2010

Folk Poetry

Public poetry forums, bathroom walls, high school literary mags, local newspapers, celebrity collections, and some popular magazines provide a sense of what the average American thinks poetry is. Literary poets can debate the merits, hazards, and even the ethics of these expectations of poetry, but we must accept them for what they are: an important, popular aesthetic. Though I’ve skirted this ground previously, I’d like to put forth the following as some of the specific qualities of "folk poetry."

1. No ideas but in ideas

To many readers, the message is the poem; it is the idea at the center of the poem that attracts them. Often, literary poets think of message as antithetical to poetry; after all, if it can be said sharp and hard, what need is there for the intricacies of poetry? Metaphor and image, the thinking goes, make messages more nuanced (a point I’m not necessarily arguing against). But frequently, the delight of the common reader is the ability to sympathize and interact with the poem, and the codifying of ideas can inhibit that connection. A poem that essentially teaches the method of how it should be appreciated will alienate some readers.

2. Sing, sing, sing

Literary poets love exotic words; popular readers love lyric, alliteration, rhythm and rhyme. It may seem a narrow distinction because exotic words often sing, but just as often they occur as obtuse fragments in the jagged melody of the poem. This popular expectation does not necessitate a return to formalism or elementary language, but littering lines with polysyllabic cowbells will leave many readers cold. (As an aside, we poets really have to stop referencing jazz to justify our tin ears.)

3. Close the circuit

Typically, the popular poem ends as it began, readdressing the subject or impetus of the poem. This recursiveness, instead of throwing the reader out of the poem, draws them back in, and keeps the conclusion relevant (if not redundant). Often the conclusion offers a new perspective, a change of heart or judgement which applies to the initial sentiment. This can be accomplished subtlety with image, but we shouldn’t confuse a hint with a conclusion.

4. The Muse Ain’t an Excuse

The literary poet’s habit of relying on associative leaps privileges the creative process over the reader. Reporting the processes of thought and invention often makes for unfocused, inscrutable poems, though this is often thought of as the product of inspiration. Popular readers expect a clear focus. Dramatic turns are preferred over associative leaps. This is, perhaps, the most difficult aesthetic to admit because it requires us to criticize our own intuition.

5. Poetry is Therapy

The purpose of poetry in pop-culture is often therapeutic, providing writers and readers with a process for expression, confession, and rehabilitation. Addict poems, abuse poems, war poems, strong women poems, mourning poems, heartbreak poems, etc. are common and popular. These poems are often abhorred by literate types for their triteness, which may seem programmed by cultural cliche, but we must remember that many of the canonical poems could be included in the category of Poem as Therapy.

Indeed, all of the above aesthetics are traceable through the long tradition of poetry; they aren't aberrations. And, to clarify, I don’t present these as dictums, and I’m not suggesting that the mob aesthetic is necessarily this narrow, or in any way superior. I take issue with some of the aesthetics I’ve described here, most particularly the last. None of my poems reflect all of these principles; some of my poems don’t reflect any of them. But these are elements of poetry that I try to remain aware of and attuned to.

I suggest we use current music culture as a reference point. Music culture now flourishes largely because of its openness to diverse influences, its defiance of boundaries, its cultural ear, its respect for the amateur and originator alike, and its interaction with the audience, broad and rare. Put another way, Music is trying to fit as many players on the stage as possible, while Poetry is off playing king of the hill.

No comments:

Post a Comment