Let’s Stop Saying, “I Don’t Like Poetry”
by Carolyn Howard-Johnson
book and marketing consultant, writer and sometime poet
When I was taking my first poetry class as an adult, I was surprised when UCLA poetry icon Suzanne Lummis sashayed into a our classroom and said, “Good evening, Poets!” It seemed overblown. Arrogant… even foreign. “Poet” as a title seemed a little highfalutin for us humble students. And I am a person who believes attitude is everything. When it comes to poetry, too many of us harbor attitudes much like mine. Therefore, they say “I don’t like poetry,” because it’s easier than even supposing that one might get off one’s duff and learn to like it! Or giving it enough consideration to realize the statement is a little like saying “I hate Picasso” when they don’t know enough about his work to know the man painted in several styles. So, do they hate his “blue period” or “cubist” period? Do they hate both of those styles, one of them, or everything in between? Really?
Two things happened recently that caused me start writing about poetry. First, a reviewer told me that my poetry is “beautiful,” then went on to say she “didn’t understand much of it.” That’s like saying not much of anything in the literary world. What’s the point of writing something with vocabulary or structure or anything else that everyone understood? Where would the fun be in that? Is that our expectation when we pick up a The New York Times — that we will understand everything. Maybe we will, but only after many years of training in reading, vocabulary building, attention to topics usually covered like politics and on and on.
The second thing that happened, a booklet known as a chapbook found its way into my hands. Words and Bones is a lovely book of poetry published by Finishing Line Press that specializes in slender books of poetry — one of mine from more than ten years ago, in fact. This one is written by LB Sedlacek, who writes poetry uniquely suited to show people who don’t know much about poetry how to tackle the process of “understanding” it better — or at least how to better appreciate what they don’t (yet) understand.
I am parroting Clinton’s political campaign, “It’s the line breaks, stupid.” They throw us for a loop. We think we have to pause when we see that break, even when there is no punctuation there to say so. In fact, there is a whole school of poetry by Philip Levine, who was instrumental in molding it into what he called the Fresno School of Poetry.
It’s almost journalistic. It feels as if the poem was written like prose and then the poet goes back to breaks up the lines — maybe purposely or maybe on a whim. It can be real with line break pauses or as full sentences. Readers can ignore those line breaks until some kind of punctuation like commas, semicolons — even dashes — tells them to pause, or a period or question mark tells them to stop. When they read the poem that way, it reads like prose. You know. Sentences. That ultimately makes it much easier to “understand.” Maybe more depth, but still.
Here is an example from the poem “Visible Thing” in Sedlaceks’ book.
The old jeans
by kudzu for
of different hues.
by the creek
The color of
day by looking
See? They are sentences. They are capitalized at the beginning, a period at the end. And we start seeing a snapshot from the South (we know it’s the South because of kudzu, but if we don’t know kudzu is practically a man-eating plant from the South, that’s OK). I mean we get that concept from “eaten alive.” The reader can look up “kudzu” on Google. Or not. We still “get it.”
There some other neat stuff, too. Triplets. Middle lines but one word. Maybe that’s a way to make sure you know they aren’t important, image-making words. Sometimes a poet lets a word stand alone on its line for the opposite reason — to give them more importance. Look at the sentences and find the noun-subject — you know the ones you learned about in the secondary school. “The old jeans factory” leads the sentence as a subject where we most usually find it.
I’m going to let you pick apart the first sentence in the poem, and then the second. Lo! It turns out to be an environmental poem where the fearsome kudzu wasn’t as damaging as the jeans factory itself, which has spit out colored poisons into the very place where children play for years! And Sedlacek has done all that without tsk, tsking at you. No lecture. She supplies the visual in only two sentences and you get to make up your own mind about the deeper meaning based on images — just a few details — she has presented to us.
By the way, those line breaks are good for a second reading. You might find the last word in each line so poignant, so laden with meaning that they become a poem within a poem that describes the poem you just read. You also might find some more meaning in in it if you follow that last word in the line to the next line to see if it leads to something unexpected. Maybe you were expecting a cliché — and then it doesn’t happen. It’s a little surprise. A little fun within the poem. Yep, verbs, too. What does the factory do? It “hummed drummed along spitting out pants.” It’s up to you to remember that subject — that it is a jeans factory! But you don’t need to worry about that because you’re used to figuring out what any sentence is really about, even very long sentences.
I highly recommend this book of poetry for readers of poetry — those who love it and those who “don’t understand it.” Much of its beauty is in the simplicity. In fact, I highly recommend this poem to Dr. Bob Rich who assembles literature that has an environmental inclination.
Now, I’ll tell you. I am a poet. As ostentatious as that may sound, I urge you to get over it. I am also a marketer. And a journalist. And a wife. And a mom. And a grandmother. I even practice yoga. Still. At my age! I am a regular bubbling pot full of poetic ideas emanating from each of those parts of me. And I want you to have as much fun — in the reading of poems or in the writing of it —as I do.
MORE ABOUT THE COLUMNIST
Carolyn Howard-Johnson brings her experience as a publicist, journalist, marketer, and retailer to the advice she gives in her HowToDoItFrugally series of books for writers and the many classes she taught for nearly a decade as instructor for UCLA Extension’s world-renown Writers’ Program. The books in her HowToDoItFrugally Series of books for writers have won multiple awards. This includes both the third edition of The Frugal Book Promoter and the second edition of The Frugal Editor. They have won awards from USA Book News, Readers’ Views Literary Award, Dan Poynter’s Global Ebook Award. The Frugal Editor won marketing award from Next Generation Indie Books and others including the coveted Irwin award. How To Get Great Book Reviews Frugally and Ethically is still in its first edition.
Howard-Johnson is the recipient of the California Legislature’s Woman of the Year in Arts and Entertainment Award, and her community’s Character and Ethics award for her work promoting tolerance with her writing. She was also named to Pasadena Weekly’s list of “Fourteen San Gabriel Valley women who make life happen” and was given her community’s Diamond Award for Achievement in the Arts.
She loves to travel. She visited nearly 100 countries before COVID interrupted and has studied writing at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom; Herzen University in St. Petersburg, Russia; and Charles University, Prague. She admits to carrying a pen and journal wherever she goes.