Why not poetry?
April 27, 2011 11:59 AM   Subscribe

This is a question for people who read widely, but don't choose to read poetry. What are you're reasons for not reading the stuff?

Be as frank as you can. I'm just trying to get a sense of how non-readers of poetry regard it, or find problematic about it, or what might have turned you off it, etc. I'm a poet working on his first manuscript and am too immersed to have a clear outsider viewpoint. But I'm curious and hoping to address some of these concerns in my work, or at least be conscious of them.
posted by troubles to Writing & Language (145 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
It's hard enough for me to find prose I like. Poetry is even harder.

That's really kind of it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:02 PM on April 27, 2011 [7 favorites]

I do the majority of my reading before I go to bed. Poetry tends to require more attention than I want to expend at that point in my day. Sorry, I'm not sure that's helpful or fixable, but it does answer your question.
posted by fyrebelley at 12:07 PM on April 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

I've been trying to put my finger on the answer to this question for years, actually. Some very good friends of mine publish a poetry journal, one of them has had several of his own poetry books published, and a good many of my friends consider themselves poets. I just...I don't know. I'm really picky about what I read (I tend to drift toward non-fiction most of the time), for sure, but I think it goes beyond that. I want a story, or facts. I don't want little snippets of writing.

Another problem I find is that I have met so many insufferable poets (in the course of my friendships with my very much sufferable poet friends) that I tend to judge before I've even read the works. That's my own particular problem, and it's not fair, but there it is.
posted by cooker girl at 12:07 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I feel like poetry takes more concentration to grasp than prose. When I read poetry, I feel like I really have to concentrate and pay attention to each word. When I read prose, I tend to skip over the unimportant words.
posted by parakeetdog at 12:09 PM on April 27, 2011 [8 favorites]

I used to read a lot of poetry; now I read much more non-fiction. Sometimes poetry can seem very pretentious, I think. I also really, really hate how, at public readings, poets sometimes recite their poetry in these hushed, reverent tones with a drawn-out meter. That doesn't help.
posted by sugarbomb at 12:09 PM on April 27, 2011 [17 favorites]

Fyrebelley has it for me. I read a lot. I read to escape. Some would say I have a reading problem. Reading poetry takes more of an effort, and seems more like work, than I usually want to expend on what is for me a guilty pleasure.
posted by thebrokedown at 12:09 PM on April 27, 2011 [13 favorites]

I was coming in to write something almost identical to fyrebelley. I've not only read closely, but taught poetry before, and I still don't read it casually. I read fiction for pleasure, and it's not pleasurable for me to have to read with a pen in my hand to make notes and deconstruct language.

I guess I'm saying that I don't read poetry casually for the same reason that I don't read quantitative work in my field casually - they both require too much active, focused attention.
posted by brozek at 12:09 PM on April 27, 2011

I enjoy discovering, exploring and understanding new things through reading fiction and nonfiction.

Poetry--it seems to me--will only bring greater understanding of one particular person's inner thoughts and feelings: the poet. The few poets I have read (Wendell Berry, Walt Whitman, Homer), I sought out because I either wanted to understand their world, or because I was already a fan of theirs.

Otherwise, I'm just not interested in the personal musings of random poets.
posted by General Tonic at 12:10 PM on April 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

This is obviously totally subjective, but you probably knew that coming in:

I read fiction, mostly science fiction and fantasy, because I want to think about new ideas. The stories I really love are the ones that show me something that's never occurred to me---maybe even something which I had every prerequisite to conceive of on my own, but which I never occurred to me. I love when an author imagines a world which differs in some single, possibly even trivial, detail (for example, we can edit memories) and explores the consequences, especially when those consequence turn out to be much broader in scope than I expect.

Without pointing any fingers or insulting anyone's craft, poetry just hasn't done that for me.
posted by d. z. wang at 12:12 PM on April 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

The effort / reward ratio is way off. Good poetry is way too much work. And digging through the bad poetry to find the good stuff, is certainly not a good use of time. I devoured all the books by Terry Pratchett. They were fun. What poetry is fun like that?
posted by Classic Diner at 12:14 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is going to sound stupid, but I think part of it for me it's the columnar format/line breaking of most poetry. If you could take a poem and put it in paragraph form, I would be more likely to attempt to read it. I guess though at that point it becomes prose.

I seriously don't know what it is but I see something - anything - formatted like that and my eyes just automatically skip past it.

I realize this is a personal affliction and is unlikely to give you any assistance with your problem.
posted by lilnublet at 12:14 PM on April 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm a voracious reader, but I almost never read poetry. I find it too dense with meaning and associations - like fyrebelley says, you have to pay attention. To every little bit of it. Sometimes inspiring, but rarely fun, for me at any rate. That said, my experience is not the same as General Tonic or d. z. wang - I certainly have had poetry make me think new and interesting thoughts. It's just too much work for me to enjoy it most days.
posted by solotoro at 12:14 PM on April 27, 2011

Hmm, just thought of a counterexample to my own claim. I do enjoy Kipling and Dorothy Parker, the first because much of it is almost a narrative of military service, and the other because she has a certain acerbic wit which I used to enjoy. But in both cases I would consider myself to enjoy their poems despite their being poets.
posted by d. z. wang at 12:15 PM on April 27, 2011

I read mostly nonfiction because I think when I read, I want to sit down and learn something - what life is like in North Korea or how to become more productive.
posted by kat518 at 12:15 PM on April 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I simply either do not understand the poem itself or the format throws me for a loop more than I am willing to adjust my thinking. Half the time, when I read poetry, I have no idea what the real meaning is.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:16 PM on April 27, 2011 [8 favorites]

I think the simple answer is that, unfair though it may be, I have a strong sense that it is contrived.

Of course all art is contrived, but with regard to reading poetry is very much more so than prose. I intellectually appreciate it but I have very rarely found that I emotionally connect to it, I suspect because the unnatural formalised structure destroys the illusion of flow and spontaneity that one gets from good prose and this leads to a disconnect.
posted by inbetweener at 12:17 PM on April 27, 2011 [16 favorites]

Poetry takes a certain level of work, as others have said. Also, historically, although I love certain poetry, a whole book of poems, whether an anthology or by one author, might have 2-3 poems in it that I really love. And that's after I weed through the many books of poetry that just don't speak to me at all. It's a lot of effort and relying on dumb luck to find the stuff I'm going to love. So I find myself going back to poetry I've discovered and enjoyed in the past, rather than putting in the effort to read new poetry, even new poetry by poets I'm already a fan of.
posted by not that girl at 12:18 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Poetry is too much like work. I usually have to read it three times just to figure out how to emphasize the right words so it rhymes. And then rearrange some of the sentences to form actual understandable English, and then ponder out what all the metaphors and similies and symbolisms are supposed to mean... it's tiring, like trying to follow a conversation in a language I barely speak.

I dislike most "personal" poetry as well... I find the heavy, sometimes syrupy emotional expression kind of icky.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 12:18 PM on April 27, 2011

But I'm curious and hoping to address some of these concerns in my work, or at least be conscious of them.

Forget about that part. Write your poetry, don't even attempt to be the bridge building poet of legends.

I love to write poetry and I have had several published in reasonably high profile publications. (Well, high profile for poetry.) But I really can't stand to read it. Good poetry is such an intimate use of words that 99.9% of other people's poetry doesn't reach me. Unlike prose, it's not trying to transfer meaning in a widely accessible manner. It's a more abstract art tightly bound to emotions, thoughts, feelings and the subconscious. And frankly an arbitrary artist who doesn't know me can only vaguely guess what my inner thoughts and feelings are, and then can only guess how to manipulate them. And that's why most poetry doesn't reach me. So don't try to reach me. Try to reach yourself. Disingenuous poetry is one of the worst abuses of language.

To help bridge that gap it can be helpful to know more about the author, where they're coming from, what they're going through, etc. As others above have said, that takes a lot more effort to read than prose. I find some poetry completely opaque without that background, and frankly, I don't want to know the background of most of the authors. (Having spent a lot of time around poets and fiction writers gave me the jaded view that they're a bunch of special snowflakes. Sorry, you asked for me to me frank.)
posted by Ookseer at 12:19 PM on April 27, 2011

Response by poster: (Yes, i'm aware its totally subjective, but I'm still very much wanting to hear views from that place. This has been great so far, don't worry about sounding stupid or misinformed. I'm pretty much agreeing with a lot of what I'm seeing here. Carry on!)
posted by troubles at 12:19 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I read a lot, usually about two hours a day, mostly non-fiction. I used to read a lot of fiction too, but I just find it less and less interesting as the years go by.

I really hate to say things like this, but when it comes to poetry,

I just


posted by freakazoid at 12:19 PM on April 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

When reading prose (or nonfiction) I tend to focus on the narrative rather than the use of language in and of itself.
Charles Bukowski's poetry is about the only poetry I've found accessible, probably because his poems are more like extremely short stories.
posted by zombiedance at 12:19 PM on April 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

I find poetry inaccessible. I don't understand it. Furthermore, why should I spend some of my precious leisure time trying to crack a bit of meaning from language deliberately crafted to be a kind of puzzle? Perhaps it's a beautiful bit of interlocking wonderfulness if only I would take the time... but that's true of a lot of things. To me, it's a puzzle. I can get a sense of transformational, perspective-shattering kaleidoscopic brilliance from a novel or short story because that's a form I'm familiar with. I have intuition and knowledge and exposure to these forms that allows me to know what to read and what to look for and enables me to recognize a bit of stylistic twist when I encounter such. And how to avoid the stuff I'm pretty sure I won't like, life being too short and all. None of this is true for me when it comes to poetry.

Also, I suspect poetry's "competition" is more from recorded music than other forms of the written word.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 12:20 PM on April 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

Honestly, I have a hard time looking at and reading strings of words or phrases that aren't full sentences or that don't go all the way across the page. I like paragraphs!

That's probably a ridiculous reason for not being into poetry, but there you go.
posted by just_ducky at 12:22 PM on April 27, 2011

I like poetry, but honestly, I'm just too picky about it. It seems like poetry is very personal to the life experiences of the poet, and so while I might enjoy this poem by Rilke or that poem by Walt Whitman, I feel like I can only relate to one or two of their poems, so it's not worth it for me to buy an entire book. And yeah, it's hard to get past the "pretentious poet" mind-block.

Slam poetry, however, I LOVE.
posted by specialagentwebb at 12:23 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not motivated enough to search for good poetry in the wild, but I enjoy it if it has been selected for me. When I subscribe to the New Yorker, I read the poetry therein. I'll also read poetry if a friend points me toward a particular poet or poem, or if I've heard something about it on NPR or elsewhere in my media travels.
posted by Wordwoman at 12:23 PM on April 27, 2011

When I have read it I feel like I am reading myself and not necessarily reading what the poet was trying to convey. So I feel I am missing the point.

(Otoh some poets like T.S.Eliot paint such vivid word pictures that I don't mind it.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:24 PM on April 27, 2011

To me, I think there is something of an issue about a perceptual divide.

I hate to go all Dead Poets' Society on it but some folks do prefer the whole old rhyme scheme, meter, fixed form stuff over the unstructured stuff which, curiously, elicits the "you just don't understand it" response upon any criticism. It's probably like the divide between people who like oil portraits and people who write treatises about great wire-bound assemblages of rusty metal weeping cream enamel paint as pus and titled The Artists' Agony.

I have been in the former camp as long as I can remember; I was scolded in high school for writing a mocking version of "The Red Wheelbarrow" by a teacher who could hardly keep a straight face upon starting my masterpiece, "Chickens in Hiroshima." (Seriously, I twitch every time MetaFilter starts up the "This is just to say" parodies) I always stuck to the old-fashioned stuff writing poetry, as well, and haven't published anything that wasn't of that ilk.

I'll read the old-school stuff for fun and won't touch the new business at all. Unfortunately, the old stuff is old and limited in quantity. Nobody wants to talk old news, while I don't really engage with something where an impression is given that one reader cannot possibly meet, independent of an art school and the company of tedious bores, the consensus interpretation and is only left wondering if this is just another iteration of "gotchya art."

If I can subtract the line breaks and it looks just like an ordinary sentence, I'll simply reach for prose, instead. New poetry? I call it music.
posted by adipocere at 12:24 PM on April 27, 2011 [7 favorites]

It takes a lot of work to read, and then at the end I don't feel like I got that much out of it. And then I feel like I didn't get that much out of it because I'm stupid. Which means I just spent a lot of time in order to feel like I'm not smart enough to "get" something.

Its funny, because I absolutely love prose with particularly strong, poetic writing-- the kind of stuff that's full of metaphors and imagery and meaning you have to read closely to catch.
posted by geegollygosh at 12:24 PM on April 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Poetry always feels like it's about the poet; good prose is about the story.
posted by headnsouth at 12:28 PM on April 27, 2011 [18 favorites]

You want reasons? Have you got until Friday?

Mostly, the insufferable introspection, the navel-gazing, the disregard for meter or rhythm, the sticky-poignant high-school girl quality of it, and the fact that I just don't plain like the word "poetry."

I'll make exceptions for Longfellow's Evangeline and Carl Sandburg's Grass.
Big of me, eh?
posted by BostonTerrier at 12:31 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

When I read fiction I like a story arc, a narrative, deep development of characters, stuff that keeps the page turning, something to give me a "what happens next" feeling.
When I read non-fiction it's because I'm trying to learn something, generally.
I feel like poetry, even if it's autobiographical, is a one-moment-in-time of one-person's-experience kind of thing. And unless I know you or have some kind of previous attachment to the poet or just some kind of context, I don't really care and it doesn't hold my attention or teach me anything.
posted by greta simone at 12:31 PM on April 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Poetry is the one art form I cannot connect with emotionally at all. Therefore I don't bother with it.
posted by MillMan at 12:33 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

don't worry about sounding stupid or misinformed.

I think you may have inadvertently stumbled upon exactly why I don't read it:
the perception that poetry is some sort of 'higher art' than other written words, and people who don't like it are too dumb to understand. Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard fans say the same thing about their stuff.

That so many see poetry as a sort of fetish turns me away from it. Parodies of poems are so indistinguishable from their "serious" brethren that it seems the thing separating "an OK poem" from "a masterpiece" is some sort of exclusive club that I do not wish to be a part of.

That, and most poems come across to me as the author masturbating at a typewriter.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 12:35 PM on April 27, 2011 [11 favorites]

English major here - I love reading most types of fiction (both serious and escapist) and some non fiction. And I read Tennyson for fun, but that is it. For me, poetry is too self indulgent, too obsessed with the miniutae, too much of looking inwards and less of looking out to wonderful grand world out there. I could read poetry, but I could also read books with stories of many many different emotions and how all of them are intertwined in one glorious overall feeling
posted by moiraine at 12:35 PM on April 27, 2011

To the extent that I do not like poetry:
A) What headnsouth said.
B) I relate to words as tools, or weapons, very concrete things. In the right circumstances they are unstoppable forces. In most other circumstances are completely inert. Occasionally, circumstances permit them to become completely amorphous and pluripotent, and then you start to get shit like 1+1=3. Poets (as far as I can tell) relate to words as maleable playthings, and rejoice in their ambiguity and the hijinks which ensue from it. I often feel like they're pointing to their shoes and saying "look at my hat."

These two approaches to language cannot be reconciled, except when they are, but that case falls under the extent to which I do like poetry.
posted by Eothele at 12:36 PM on April 27, 2011

I should read more poetry. I really should. I love all kinds--Eliot, Yeats, Homer, Chaucer, Pope, Li Po, George Herbert, Goethe, Philip Larkin, Dante, Seamus Heaney, Anne Sexton--not a representative sample, just off the top of my head--but the truth is that when I'm reading for pleasure I gravitate towards short stories, novels, or creative nonfiction. I think it's something along the lines of what someone else said. It can feel contrived, pretentious, solipsistic, self-indulgent.

And there's nothing worse than finding oneself reading a very bad poem by an author who doesn't know how awful he/she is. It's a bit like meeting someone at a cocktail party and expecting to have a pleasant, stimulating conversation, except that your new acquaintance stands too close and has carrion breath and talks urgently on about his last bowel movement or his ex-girlfriend's faults in a high, whiny voice, and you're just embarrassed for him and want to get away without cringing too noticeably.
posted by tully_monster at 12:36 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

adipocere: "some folks do prefer the whole old rhyme scheme, meter, fixed form stuff over the unstructured stuff"

Actually, that's a great point. I much prefer Kipling, Tennyson, and Longfellow over the free-form stuff my friends in the writing program show me sometimes. Even Beowulf and the Iliad, when I've heard excerpts read aloud in the original language, held my attention just for being a really interesting series of sounds. I think if modern poets were still writing in the old style, I might be much more enthusiastic about the whole genre.
posted by d. z. wang at 12:39 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't normally find it compelling. They mostly seem like little vignettes of passing moments of fleeting feelings that one person had, and I guess I just don't really care. No that I have never enjoyed poetry, but to be honest I am more likely to read something by an old, established poet than someone contemporary, because I feel like poetry has just gotten more contrived and precious over time. I don't see a lot of depth of emotion or thought. Now, that there are accomplished poets working today, I'm sure they're there. However, add to that the fact that the medium really makes me work too hard for what the payoff is in the end, and it makes it very unlikely that I will be seeking them out.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 12:45 PM on April 27, 2011

I'm in the same boat as many others -- a lot of it is just really inaccessible. Many times I've tried to read poetry and just been mired in metaphor and allusion. Lot's of poems read like obtuse song lyrics, but there's no accompanying music to redeem it.

Also like others, I prefer the old fixed form poems. Shakespeare's sonnets are wonderful. One of my favorite modern pieces is Gaiman's Vampire Sestina.
posted by bfranklin at 12:46 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I need there to be plot. I'm not interested in writing as a craft. It has to be written well, of course, but writing as art does not do it for me.
posted by something something at 12:47 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

while I might enjoy this poem by Rilke or that poem by Walt Whitman, I feel like I can only relate to one or two of their poems, so it's not worth it for me to buy an entire book.

This brings up another point for me -- there are a handful of poems by Yeats that I utterly love, and Anne Sexton's whole Transformations book was brilliant, and there are a handful of other "oh, I like that poem by that guy, and this poem by this guy" poems I like here and there.

But for the most part, most modern poetry is almost too personal an expression to me -- which is kind of the way poetry is supposed to be, taking a single moment and blowing it open. But that's the blessing and the curse of poetry -- a given person's individual moments like that are sometimes so personal that most people will read it and think, "I don't get it, why did you tell me about that?" But there is always that 1% of the readers who have had the same kind of moment and will stumble upon your poem and think "Oh my God, I totally get this" because they've been there too.

I think that may be what's going on -- a lot of modern poetry is so microscopically focused that it just shuts out all but the very, very select few people who have had that exact same experience you're talking about. On the other hand, for those select few people, what you've written could be completely mind-blowing.

....For the record, I don't need stuff to rhyme, either. I almost prefer it if it doesn't.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:49 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I can more easily discern good prose from bad prose, but poetry is hard to judge and therefore I'm continually wondering if what I'm reading is worthwhile.
posted by dgran at 12:50 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think the format of a whole book of poetry is daunting because, as many have said, poems are so dense and difficult to unpack. Also, a large number of poems are about a specific image or revelation, and it can be hard to really absorb these individually when they're laid out in a series like they are in a book or a poetry journal. For the past six months or so I have been reading a poem a day and I think that works well.

Also, I think what I really value about poetry comes from writing it--thinking things through and learning how I feel about things by the process of writing and shaping a poem. (I don't write in a strictly traditional way, but most of my poems have some sort of intentional structure.) It's not really the same when I read someone else's poems.
posted by mlle valentine at 12:55 PM on April 27, 2011

As freakazoid said, I just don't care. I've tried to care, I've tried to read poetry. I read fiction and nonfiction to the point where it's almost problematic, but reading poetry is torturous to me. Part of it is as others have said - navel gazing, so much feeling from one person - and part of it is all the supposed symbolism involved. I'm just not wired for that. (Probably why I don't really enjoy art that much, either.)

That said, I do have some poetry that I tolerate.

1. Emily Dickinson I'll read in small, small doses, mainly because of the meter; and
2. Ogden Nash, because "Candy / Is dandy / But liquor / Is quicker" is brilliant. :)

But that's about it.
posted by southpaw at 12:57 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

The pleasure I take from poetry is from learning it and saying it to myself (but I don't read it a lot). I know a modest number of poems by heart, mostly well-known ones that rhyme and can be read casually for immediate pleasure as well as in more complex ways - Blake, Eliot, Donne, Auden, Stevens.

There are some poems which look dumb on the page but are very good when they're performed by someone with a vision - a lot of contemporary poetry that I encounter seems like very generic uplift on the page, sort of cliched and "rah rah you go heroic [marginalized group]!!!" but I like hearing it. Obviously, I don't want to read it because I can't perform it for myself.

Consider Moon Fragment, here. It has an internal rhythm that isn't immediately apparent, it's disconnected, it seems a bit twee, it seems a lot like prose written out funny. I don't think this is a particularly difficult poem, but I'm not sure why I would seek it out. I happened across it because someone quoted a line in a story, and the part that goes "but the moon comes around" is stuck in my head like the line of a song. I like having read this poem, but I don't know why I would have been drawn to it without an outside reference.

I assume that if you read a lot of contemporary poetry, you have sort of a shop/performer's/expert's appreciation for little things and resonances that would escape me. It's like any other field of expertise - I don't know much about coffee and my pleasure in the occasional good cup wouldn't be very much enhanced by knowing that it was a particular year or estate.

Also, I take some time to digest and enjoy a poem. I don't read much poetry because I don't need to read much poetry, for my purposes. One good poem lasts me a while.

On a practical level, I learned a little bit about how to read older poetry in school, plus I memorized some of it for class. We didn't do that for contemporary poetry, probably because there isn't much right-wing, nationalistic christian contemporary stuff. So I didn't get a good sense of all that "why doesn't it rhyme? why is it more introspective? why is it more personal?" business.

Also, I've seen a lot of anthologies of accessible older poetry and can flip through them and find something I like. Not as much with the contemporary stuff.

And older poetry is more like songs, so it's more familiar in structure and effect.
posted by Frowner at 12:57 PM on April 27, 2011

I Just. Don't. Get It. I like to read history and true stories, because I like to know stuff. I am missing the gene for why some words evoke more emotion in people than others. I have absolutely no idea whatsoever why Shakespeare is great, except that people have told me he's great. And yes, it's too much work, as others have said.
posted by Melismata at 12:58 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I read in sort of an escapist way; when I read for pleasure I generally want to read something that grabs my attention and will hold it for hours. I generally gravitate towards novels and narrative nonfiction that I find immersive. Poetry (and short stories) just aren't long enough to build the kind of long immersive experience I'm looking for when I read.
posted by pombe at 12:59 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't read poetry for myself for all of the reasons you see above.

What has changed recently is that someone gave us a book of poetry for our 2 1/2 year old child. (It's not really kids stuff, but it adult poems that are short and a little more accessible)

She loves it (as do I) and have found other poetry books to read to her, some serious, some silly (in the shel silverstein vein) - having a picture on the page helps as well.

Reading poetry for myself I find boring unless its huiku
Hearing a poet read their work aloud is interesting
Reading poetry to someone can be nice.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 1:00 PM on April 27, 2011

I mostly read for plot. Most poems don't have a plot.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:03 PM on April 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Like others have said, it's a lot of work for very little reward. And like others have mentioned, seeing a page of poetry reminds me of all the insufferable poets I have met. All you need to be a "poet" is a pen and some attitude; I think it is a genre that would be much improved if there was a higher barrier to entry.
posted by Forktine at 1:03 PM on April 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I just wanted to second adipocere and d z wang, as someone who cannot get enough rhyming, metrical verse but will not go within a mile of anything modern. In my case a lot of it comes from studying modern poetry at school, and encountering two problems with it:

a) it doesn't matter how many hours we devote to sitting around picking this poem apart, we will never really know for sure what the poet is talking about; and
b) if the poem doesn't resonate with me personally, however amazingly written it supposedly is (I really can't tell good free verse from bad at all), I'm not going to like it.

With something like a sonnet, though, even if you don't really get where it's going, you can still appreciate the technical skill that went into crafting it. I read a lot of A C Swinburne's poetry, and more than anything I just love the sound of it and the way it's written - you almost feel as though what he's saying doesn't matter. Even if this is pure style over substance, I will happily take it given that with most poetry I can't be sure what the substance actually is anyway...
posted by raspberry-ripple at 1:06 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Well, one positive thing about this thread is that it's good to know I'm not alone on this...
posted by freakazoid at 1:07 PM on April 27, 2011

Oh wait. There is ONE poet I like quite a bit.

A. A. Milne and all his poems about teddy bears and whatnot. I think I even own one of his books.

But that's really about it.

posted by freakazoid at 1:11 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I consider ideal fiction to deliver the total package of interesting ideas, compelling characters, beautiful language, and a gripping story. Most doesn't get there, and is weak in at least one of the above. I can live with that. Leave out more than one, and my interest drops fast.

Most modern poetry, so far as I can see, leaves out more than one. Of course, most of that isn't trying for all of those, and it's entirely unfair of me to judge poetry by the standards I use for prose. And so I don't -- I just accept that it's not my thing and move on.
posted by Zed at 1:15 PM on April 27, 2011

I went through a phase where I loved loved loved poetry, especially certain poets like Sharon Olds or Gallway Kinnell, poets that would just make everything come alive for me. After taking a lot of poetry classes in college, I did lose a lot of interest in it. I didn't like having my own poems heavily critqued, as it usually made them sparser and more confusing and less literal... which is how most poetry reads to me these days.

A lot of published poetry now-a-days, in magazines, say, like the New Yorker come across as a little cold or academic to me. It's the rare poem which feels whole and bright but also edgy, revealing, tender, and vulnerable. When that happens- God Damn! Poetry is amazing. But I really don't find it that much, though I would love to find more of it.
posted by Rocket26 at 1:15 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Poetry is like painting. There was a period where we did it really well, and then something happened and we forgot how. The golden age is over. The good old times--all times when old are good--are gone.

Or maybe we just forgot how to read it. Which is to say, history hasn't told us yet which of these modernish poems we should be reading, and since we don't read poetry, we don't know which poetry to read. We're not trained in it, steeped in it, we don't have it playing in our heads. Most by numbers judge a poet's song, and smooth or rough, with them, is right or wrong.

Maybe something similar will happen to narrative prose over the years, and someone will ask, "Those of you who watch movies widely, tell me why you don't choose to read stories," and we'll talk about how the style doesn't work, it's too clunky, too personal, too impersonal, doesn't engage the big questions, is too preachy, too much eye movement. For an art form to work, there has to be that conversation between my history and yours, what you know how to do, and what I know how to read.
posted by mittens at 1:17 PM on April 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

To me, poetry requires rhythm to enjoy. I like listening to others read poems but I'm not really good at imposing my own rhythm onto what I'm reading, so I don't like to read it silently.

That's the primary reason for me, but I also share in what fyrebelley said.
posted by Kurichina at 1:18 PM on April 27, 2011

See, this (from here is the very type of contemporary poetry that I don't like much, even though obviously it speaks to plenty of people:

I strike, then from the moment when the matchstick
conjures up its light, to when the brightness moves
beyond its means, and dies, I say the story
of my life -

dates and places, torches I carried,
a cast of names and faces, those
who showed me love, or came close,
the changes I made, the lessons I learnt -

then somehow still find time to stall and blush
before I'm bitten by the flame, and burnt.

A warning, though, to anyone nursing
an ounce of sadness, anyone alone:
don't try this on your own; it's dangerous,

1. It's an extended metaphor about personal feelings but does not actually give any concrete lived experience - to me it reads as though it is meant to be a "universal human experience...so deep and meaningful!" thing.

2. It uses simple concrete nouns to create what seems to me a false effect of simplicity, "realness", sincerity

3. It suggests something patently false - that it is so very dangerous, "mad" and implicitly courageous and special snowflakey to contemplate your own past, especially if it's....sad. Poems that go all "it is so brave and special to confront the generic sadness and loneliness that lurks inside us all!" seem really trite to me. And false - there is no "generic" sadness or "universal" human condition, and usually what gets called universal is the experience of well-off white straight men (this poet seems to be from a lower middle class background but got a great deal of education and experienced a bunch of success.)

4. It suggests that the poet himself is very, very interesting - he has been loved! and made changes! - and I find it extraordinary that we are expected to be interested in the poet because of these things.

5. It's really, really sentimental - sort of that "and you're supposed to sob for humanity while smiling through the tears" feeling....

I do like the rhythm and the rhyme of it, though, and the vowel sounds echoing each other. I like the way "then somehow still find time" is all quick and jumbly, like it's hurried in. I like, in other words, how this poem is written, but I find the content unappealing.
posted by Frowner at 1:21 PM on April 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

Poetry (and Shakespeare) were ruined for me by the world's most useless English teacher when I was a teenager.

My teacher would talk about the tiniest intricacies of poetry for hours. Time stood still during those lessons. I completely switched off from poetry after I read an article about how one of the poets whose work was part of the national curriculum took an exam on his own poem anonymously and only got a C because he had "missed the point". The whole thing seemed so subjective and whiffed of navel gazing. Poetry and especially the analysis and appreciation of poetry reminded me of the story of the Emperor's New Clothes: everyone pretending to understand the intricacies so as not to appear like a stupid philistine.

I'm sure that my teenage analysis is completely off, but somehow it has branded itself into my mind and I just can't switch it off and enjoy poetry.
posted by MighstAllCruckingFighty at 1:24 PM on April 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

I like very much to listen to poetry, the way it was meant to be, surrounded by people who share the moment and the meaning. Reading poetry takes away the feeling of community, taking away its humanity. Listening to songs is my substitute to reading poetry.
posted by francesca too at 1:27 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's because I don't know where to start. So many poets, so many poems, where would I begin?. I have simply no way of unpicking all the options, so I don't make a choice.

Related, is that whilst I have a relatively clear idea of what sort of prose I want to read dependent on the mood I'm in. If I feel like tackling a project I'll read a "renowned" novel, but there are days when I want some candy so I'll read Terry Pratchett or something similar. I have no idea about what an appropriate type of poetry would be to match my mood. So again, I don't.

That said, I probably ought to read more, as I've enjoyed reading poetry on the times people have suggested stuff to me, and I particularly enjoy prose with poetic turns of phrase (Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces springs to mind).
posted by grahamspankee at 1:31 PM on April 27, 2011

On top of a lot of what others have said:

There's a fine line between well-crafted free verse and prose that has unusual linebreaks. I find an awful lot of modern poetry I encounter falls about ten feet on the "unusual linebreaks" side of the line. But there are exceptions so I know it's not just disliking free verse generally.
posted by mendel at 1:33 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

one of the poets whose work was part of the national curriculum took an exam on his own poem anonymously and only got a C because he had "missed the point".

This is exactly what I mean. It used to annoy me so much in English lessons how the teacher would make out that every tiny little thing about every word was totally deliberate and meant to convey some kind of effect in a hugely meaningful way: she'd say "isn't this tremendously clever, the way he's used a one-syllable word here to illustrate the brevity of the moment?" and I'd think, are we absolutely sure that's why he did it? Do we have any actual evidence that he didn't just stick a pin in a thesaurus or something? I know the idea is that a poet does choose the perfect word without even meaning to because they're, well, a poet, but as someone who innately prefers science, in which you usually only accept ideas because there is some sort of proof, the amount of conjecture just irritated me.

(My best friend and I later developed a little tradition of one of us writing a stupid poem and the other one doing an English-lesson-style analysis of it, which was always amusing.)
posted by raspberry-ripple at 1:37 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

My reaction to poetry is basically MEH. It seems mostly about introspection, and frankly, a lot of it is just not good..
As others have stated above, I read for escapism, new thought paths, and information. I love prose that delights in language, which for me usually consists of fiction. I read plenty of how-to books.
posted by annsunny at 1:37 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't find beauty in form; and I'm not terribly interested in new metaphors for stuff. I feel like the meduim trends (but of course is not exclusively limited to) the melodramatic and the sentimental.

For some data points, I can't stand Dickinson, but 'Desert Places' is probably the best thing ever put to paper.
posted by spaltavian at 1:38 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Anyone can write a poem...

Not many can write a novel...

Therein lies the problem.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 1:38 PM on April 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm like a few people who've posted upthread. There are individual poems that I love with a great fierceness, but poetry as a genre leaves me cold for the reasons others have already mentioned. It's so hard for someone to do it well, and when it's done badly it's so much worse than bad prose. I think there's actually a lot of amazing poetry in the world right now, but it might be in the form of song lyrics, or kids books, or advertising jingles, or, I don't know, LOLcat captions... Basically, the more someone insists that poetry is completely different from all of those things, the more I tend to expect their poetry will be inward-focused, pretentious twaddle. Those that focus less on what their work is called and/or if it's going to earn them the proper academic credibility, and more on describing a piece of life in an accurate, relateable way, tend to be the ones that can unexpectedly gut-punch me with laughter, or sadness, or fear, which I've always felt was one of poetry's strengths as a form.
posted by MsMolly at 1:41 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Part vicious cycle; not reading poetry means I'm not exposed to more poetry that I might like more than what I've read to date. Part that I like only certain genres in prose; if poetry has genres, I'm not aware of it. And part because poetry is so infused with meaning and subtext and The Mending Wall can't just be about The Mending Wall until everybody is confused about what the poem 'means' -- even a mind like Sarah Palin! And that's a relatively easy one. When I read prose, I don't need to worry as much about what the writer 'meant' if I don't want to; I can just enjoy the writing on a surface level. I'm sure there are poems I could enjoy on a surface level too, but you just asked for my reasons, you didn't say they had to be rational.
posted by troywestfield at 1:50 PM on April 27, 2011

Poetry is in a death spiral. Its practitioners have turned away from the general population in favor of the academic, meta, self-referential, inward, cliquey. As regular readers fall away, more and more poets fight for audience share among the incestuous academic devotees who remain. Honestly, we're already pretty much at the point where only other poets read poetry.

I don't believe that this was inevitable or simply a product of television and the movies. Poetry (creative culture in general?) took an unfortunate turn a while back, and now poets are stranded in the desert. They cut themselves off from the world.

I am pretty sure this is already happening in fiction, but it is at a much less advanced stage.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 1:54 PM on April 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

If I'm not smacked in the face by a poem's obvious rhyme or meter (Paul Revere's Ride, Dr. Seuss, Robert Frost) I just feel like I'm reading incomplete prose with little to no punctuation and strange line breaks. That's hard to read.

And on the rare occasion when I'm struck by the feelings and intention of a unrhymed, unmetered verse, I'm left wishing the author had written an essay instead.
posted by ladygypsy at 2:02 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I want to add, though, that there are a number of poets from back in the day who speak clearly and directly to the reader -- and there are some who still do so, today.

I'd say Philip Levine's "What Work Is" is a good counterexample to the one provided above. I suspect if poetry were more like this, people would still be reading it.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 2:08 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a bookworm librarian who hasn't picked up a word of poetry in years. I usually read sci-fi, fantasy, and historical fiction. I have been mulling your question for a few hours (boring meeting) and can only come up with a few disjointed ideas. I'm thinking of the bits and snippets of modern poetry that i have been exposed to.

Poems can be twee,
forced meter and pretension.
Nothing rhymes with orange.

Dramatic, ay me!
They're all about the author.

Poetry lacks maps,
World-building, epic drama.
Not enough spaceships.
posted by Elly Vortex at 2:11 PM on April 27, 2011 [15 favorites]

Poetry does not often move me. It can, but does not do so as reliably as a well written novel. Also, I enjoy the extended diversion of a novel. Most poems are more like a quick bite when compared to a book.

They have their place, and I am capable of enjoying --even appreciating-- some poems (even the non-humorous ones), but I know I can get more reliability and mileage out of a book when I want something to transport me.
posted by Ys at 2:14 PM on April 27, 2011

I read a lot, mostly non-fiction these days, but a fair bit of fiction as well. I have, in the past, loved lyrical writing that has strong imagery -- fantasy writers like Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany, even (god help me) Lovecraft. Mervyn Peake. For sf, Samuel R. Delany, Cordwainer Smith, Jack Vance... but poetry, even with its imagery, simply doesn't have the strong narrative structure that I like. Tell me a story, that's all.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 2:16 PM on April 27, 2011

In school I loved old poetry, whether it was T.S. Eliot or the Victorian stuff. But unless it's rap, I've always had a hard time getting interested in new poetry. Probably it's for the same reason I'm turned off by modern American literary novels. Lots of times the stuff seems self-consciously important and made for a niche audience. Not like Dylan Thomas or Byron where you are just like "fuck yeah."
posted by Victorvacendak at 2:18 PM on April 27, 2011

I've taken courses where we analyzed the poems of T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Shakespeare. Clearly, the problem is not that I've never gotten an adequate education in truly great poetry.

But poetry has just never reached me.

Here's how I know I don't get it: the best I can hope for is to have someone else explain to me why I'm supposed to find a poem great.

With the art that's meaningful to me, I don't need an assistant. I can just directly experience the thing and find it great on my own. I cannot honestly say I've ever done this with poetry (aside from song lyrics where what I enjoy isn't the text on the page, but the way the words complement the music -- and yes, I would always say that the words are enhancing the music rather than the other way around).
posted by John Cohen at 2:20 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I see it as something akin to this Honda Civic vs. this one.

I read a fair amount, but I'm a "honda civic daily driver" of words. The words on the page barely even register for me; they're nothing more than a vehicle to convey an interesting story (in the case of fiction) or a new bit of knowledge about the world (for non-fiction). The more the words stay out of my way, the better.

Poetry, to me, is the second image, a "tricked out street-racer honda civic" of words. The whole point of poetry seems to be to focus on the words. How can I say this with a clever metaphor or some nice alliteration? The words not some medium to convey the thing, they are the thing.

To get me to read something - have something interesting to say first, and then tell it to me as straightforwardly as possible.

Or, I suppose, say it in such a gosh-darn amusing way that I can't help but smile, like Dr. Seuss, my favorite poet...
posted by losvedir at 2:20 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Poetry generally goes not move me. It can, but not with the reliability of a well-written novel. I also like the length of books better than poems. A long poem is generally an inconvenient form of reading a story, and a short one just doesn't last long enough to count as a break for my mind. Last, I don't really enjoy the mental gymnastics necessary to appreciate more thought-provoking poetry. There are cultural references that pass me by, internal flourishes that I've no interest in deciphering, and "deep thoughts" that, honestly, I don't care enough about to pursue. I am capable of enjoying --even appreciating-- poetry (even the non-rhyming kind), but I don't seek it out because I know, when I want to be transported, that I can get more mileage from a novel.
posted by Ys at 2:21 PM on April 27, 2011

I'm dating a poet, and I teach it in the University. I don't read it for fun, the boyfriend does. We talk about this question quite a bit. Why does poetry matter? What exactly happened to it as a much-read form? Someone upthread said it was academia who ruined it and I'm inclined to agree. Perhaps it has only changed its shape? LOTS of people listen to rap. That's poetry. It's alive and well, only academia hasn't caught up with the idea that all the good poetry is taking place in that arena.

Academic critics... they're a scourge. They love ambiguity because it gives them something to write about in their academic journals that are required in order to make tenure. They love the ubercomplex line and the obscure encylopedic references of a poem like "The Wasteland" (Eliot's worst poem in my opinion) because if you "get" the poem too easily, then how can you write a 130 page dissertation on the "Post-modern Hermeneutics of Gender in the Medieval Fabliaux". Academia sucks all the fun out of everything.

There is good poetry out there. Try having a well sculpted poet recite Rilke to you in bed after an afternoon of lusty sheet twisting on a rainy afternoon. You will be moved.
posted by madred at 2:24 PM on April 27, 2011 [8 favorites]

I don't read poetry for the same reason I avoid most short stories. I feel like they always end too soon, that I haven't learned anything or come to understand anything any more than I did when I started, other than the poet's personal emotions, which I honestly just don't care about.
posted by Hargrimm at 2:27 PM on April 27, 2011

I read fiction because I like stories and I like stories that I can't easily guess the end to. Some poets tell stories well, but the main attraction is always the language itself, which I am less enthusiastic about. Comparing poetry and other written art kind of devolves into the apples to oranges thing. They are different forms that attract different people. It is similar to how not everyone who likes film enjoys theater.
posted by Bachsir at 2:28 PM on April 27, 2011

I love poetry, but generally, I need music with it. That is, I love a good song lyric, and have spent many an hour devouring such. I'm guessing that the nut of this issue goes back to Bob Dylan who roundabout 1965 suddenly took:

A. rock + roll
B. serious poetry

And combined the two so well that there's thus far been no going back. Which isn't to say there isn't still perfectly good ...

A. rock + roll without serious lyrics
B. serious poetry without music

I just feel both rather incomplete.
posted by philip-random at 2:32 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have several friends who call themselves 'poets' - a couple of them are literally professionals - and I have to say that I find poetry of almost every kind staggeringly dull and uninspiring. It mostly seems like self-important prattling to me; either that or nonsensical, unendurably saccharine, or obtuse and useless language.

Once in a while some poetry will catch my ear that I really, really like - something like Wallace Stevens' 'The Emperor of Ice Cream,' or 'My Mother's Penis' by Carissa Neff, or the lyrics to a song called 'Blue Sky' that my wife wrote. There doesn't seem to be a theme to the poetry I like - it just hits me right, and there it is.

In a word, I don't generally read poetry because it seems needless; in a phrase, it seems like narrative narcissism. People keep reading the stuff to me, however, and I'm lucky for that I suppose, as I occasionally stumble upon a diamond among the coal merely by being in proximity to people smarter than I am.
posted by Pecinpah at 2:32 PM on April 27, 2011

I read. A lot. Like 1-2 books per week.

I like stories, I like plots, and characters, I like beginnings, middles, and ends, I like conflict, I like resolution. Mostly, I like to be entertained. This means I read all sorts of books ranging from the classics to urban fantasy to well pretty much anything because I don't care as long as I'm entertained and the story is good.

Poetry is boring, it is all feelings and it wants me to interpret things and I am not in the mood. Also, it annoys me because it feels really self-centered. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing but it feels like it should be in a journal, not like something I should even want to read because it is allllll about you and I want to be entertained.

I would have to agree that high school managed to blow any chance that poetry ever had. The forced and over interpretation, we weren't just allowed to enjoy it. Sooo, I hate it. Also, it is boring.
posted by magnetsphere at 2:35 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I adore certain poems. But the vast majority of the stuff just does nothing for me. There's no real pattern, either - different forms, eras, styles, whatever, I like a fraction of it and am utterly indifferent to the rest.

So I think the problem is that I have no idea how to sort the stuff without reading it. I mean, I feel the same way about short stories, but I've discovered that Gardner Dozois has very similar tastes to mine so I read his yearly Best Of anthology and I get a lot of bang for my buck. Video games, same deal, but I know where to find reviews or who to ask to figure out what will work before I make a huge investment. Poetry? No idea. My most reliable sources of poems that really grab me these days are the comment threads at a blog I read - people compose spontaneous poetry and a lot of it is really, really good.

So the issue is, for me, one of filters. I don't know where to find one, and without one, the signal-to-noise ratio is just terrible.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:36 PM on April 27, 2011

Another comment. I'm very literal-minded. So when I read words on a page, I assume that they mean exactly what they say and that they transparently express coherent thoughts.

This doesn't mean I enjoy only art with straightforwardly representational content. I enjoy instrumental music and abstract paintings. The great thing about them to me is that they're so obviously not trying to analyze a specific, concrete fact (or object or quality, etc.), so I feel free to lose myself in the piece in a spontaneous, unpredictable, exciting way.

If the art is good, it should utterly transcend mundane reality. A newspaper article can't do that, and shouldn't do that. It's supposed to bring me reality. I like knowing that certain things in life are supposed to have one function (conveying information) while others are supposed to have a different function (artistic expression).

For me, poetry is in an uncomfortable grey area. It is inevitably composed of words. A word, on its own, in plain black and white on a page (not sung or written in a typographically interesting way) is meaningful to me insofar as it represents something specific in the real world. But when I look at the words in a poem, I don't know what to think or feel. Does this word mean what I expect the word to mean, or is it supposed to express something else? If the former, why wouldn't I just read prose if I wanted to read something with literal meaning? If the latter, I just don't feel I've ever acquired the facility of experiencing words in this way. In school, it seemed to be expected that we were just naturally able to do this. It felt as if I had gone to school in a foreign country and couldn't tell anyone that I only speak English, not their language, so these lessons are not doing me much good.
posted by John Cohen at 2:40 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I am a creative writer. Written and published poetry. I like "difficult" literary fiction. I'd rather read books with amazing style than tight plot. But, I don't read much contemporary poetry, despite having subscriptions to several academically-produced literary magazines.

One, poetry requires my full attention and then some. I have to mull it over for a long time to feel like I'm understanding the words. I don't feel like it's something I can pick up and put down again.

Two, there's a lot of bad poetry out there. I've taught it and I think people's perception is that poetry has to be sooooo personal and emotional, which just makes me cringe. My students have all loved Plath because of her dramz-filled life, but few of them catch on to the fact that she knew what she was doing with every word. Language comes first, emotion is second in my schema.

Three, and I suppose this is related to point two, I think that in general people don't see language as art. It can be utilitarian, it can convey a narrative, but I think lots of readers just don't see the art in arranging words.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 2:51 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I do read widely (after a fashion -- I am another 'more non-fiction as I get older' person) and I do read poetry. But these are not really related pursuits for me, and I think you make a mistake in assuming that they are. I do not put a book of poetry in the same mental space as a book book. It is in the general "arts" space, with theatre and dance and visual arts and so on, but poetry is as much with "regular book" as "regular book" is with "ballet."
posted by kmennie at 2:56 PM on April 27, 2011

It's difficult for me to feel moved by it. Also, poetry feels too technical. When I'm reading it I'm thinking more about the stanzas and the structure than the meaning. It feels too constrained.
posted by biochemist at 3:06 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

1. Trying on purpose to be obscure.
2. Poetry was more fun when it rhymed. Modern poetry is mostly just stream of conciousness with some words left out on purpose to (see 1) try to make something simple seem difficult.
3. Long poetry. Why not just write a story?
4. Too serious.

Poetry I like:

Ballads, song lyrics, or nusery rhyme type things-rhyming, fun, has good rythm, sing song, actually getting across a story or meaning, not always serious but goes from irreverant to serious and back again and more.
posted by Nixy at 3:24 PM on April 27, 2011

Agreeing with what has been said before but I was especially struck by francesca too's words.
Because I read a lot but hardly ever read poetry. And I thought - I love going to the theatre, but I don't read plays. Maybe for me it is that poetry, like drama, is better heard than read. I once attended a Moliere production where the translation was entirely in rhyme. It would have been meh to read but was awesome to listen to.
posted by pointystick at 3:29 PM on April 27, 2011

When I go to a book store I look for books that will be fun, interesting, or preferably both. I read books to stretch my imagination and stimulate my mind - to give me new things to think about, new places and stories and people to dream about - more raw material for that endlessly hungry thinking-machine in my head to grind away on.

I never look in the poetry section. I never think of looking in the poetry section. I know that people who like poetry really like it but I don't understand what it is they like about it, and the few forays I've made in that direction have not left me any wiser. I don't feel like I know how to get anything fun or interesting out of poems. Thinking about it now, it just sounds like work. I have fond memories of the whimsical rhymey kids' poems I learned in school, but grown-up poetry always seemed difficult, elusive, serious, not-fun. I feel like I must be missing the point, or why would people put so much energy into it?

I guess poetry must be like every other form of art that requires some conceptual framework to appreciate. I don't have that framework, so the art form doesn't really work for me. I have no motivation to invest the time acquiring that background, since nobody I know talks about poetry; I don't have to learn poetry in order to understand what my friends are excited about.

I think I understand what this must be like, though. I listen to a lot of progressive / psychedelic / goa-trance. It's a cluster of micro-genres that really speaks to me. There's something about the evolving repetition, the energy level, the mixture of dark intensity and soaring euphoria, and in general the technical creativity that really gets into my brain and makes me feel really, really happy. I also have a circle of friends who are into similar music with whom I can share my latest discoveries.

But I also have a lot of friends who just don't get it, who don't understand how I can listen to the same thumpy bleepy noise on and on for hours on end - don't I get sick of it? It's so tedious! It's so repetitive! It's all the same and it all sucks! Well, yeah, they have a point: there is a definite formula for this genre and it is based on a certain never-varied song structure and repetitive looping style. If that's all you are hearing then sure, it's going to sound like a lot of the same thing over and over and over for hours. Where's the melody? Why are there no lyrics? Why is the meter always the same and the tempo nearly the same?

But what I'm hearing is something totally different: sure, yeah, there's that good ol' 4/4 kick drum cruising along at 130 bpm, and the music does the same 32/8-bar A/B breakdown structure over and over, but that's just the setup. What's really going on, what I'm actually listening to, is all the stuff built on top: the endlessly varied synthesizer manipulation that creates all that brain-tickling arpeggiated awesomeness that makes me want to dance all night, or write code all day.

So this, I imagine, must be something like what poetry fans feel. It's all the same, I might complain - it's just a lot of self-indulgent droning, in minute, cryptic detail, about trivial non-events! Where's the plot? Where are the characters? What is even going on here? How can you stand it? And the poetry fan must think: But you're missing the entire point! You're focusing on the wrong part! Yeah sure maybe there's no plot, but who cares? Look at *this* and *that* and *the other thing*... and here's where my ability to construct the analogy falls apart, because I have no idea what that might be. Whatever's going on in poetry that people like is operating on a level I don't know how to see.
posted by Mars Saxman at 3:30 PM on April 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

I am another one who foams at the mouth about the rejection of rhyme and meter in recent years. I tend to feel that at least that takes *some* skill, and far too much of what I've seen that passes as poetry since Fashions Changed (TM)... doesn't. Mind, my favourite poem ever ever ever is T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", which isn't exactly a sestina, but for the most part, I like some kind of *push* behind my poetry. Rhythm gives a piece a sense of urgency and motion that most modern poetry seems to lack. It's attenuated and bloodless and doesn't mean anything or do anything. It just sits there admiring its own cleverness. Alas, I cannot usually do the same, because I do not find it clever.

Note: I also like some e e cummings a great deal. It can be done. It just generally isn't.

Happily, there are people like Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave and Tom Waits and suchlike who supply my wordplay needs and don't get all snotty and holier-than-thou about it. Yes, I also hate Modern Art (TM). If you're the sort who can swoon over the Deep Meaning of a canvas covered in red paint and nothing else, then ignore me. You've inherited the art world anyway, and do not need my approval.

In conclusion, get off my lawn!
posted by Because at 3:33 PM on April 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

Hm. I'm going to take back what I said about formatting; there must be something more to it because mittens' response grated me in exactly the same way most poetry does.
posted by lilnublet at 3:35 PM on April 27, 2011

For an example of good poetry, I really enjoyed the book The Hell With Love: Poems to Mend a Broken Heart



you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

an open eye

-Margaret Atwood


Somewhere a seed falls to the ground
That will become a tree
That will some day be felled
From which thin shafts will be extracted
To be made into arrows
To be fitted with warheads
One of which, some day when you least expect it,
While a winter sun is shining
On a river of ice
And you feel farthest from self-pity,
Will pierce your shit-filled heart.

-Michael Fried
posted by Nixy at 3:46 PM on April 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

I recently literally threw away a memoir/travelogue written by a poet. Because it was just TOO FUCKING NARCISSISTIC. I did not buy your book because I wanted to know what you dreamed last night. I bought it because I thought it would be an evocative look at American feminist academic's life raising a young child in northern Italy in the mid 1990's. By page 50 I realized the book was going to be 90% "I walked barefoot through an ash-strewn field" and 10% anything interesting to anyone who isn't her therapist.

Granted, it might be that this particular poet is just an egotistical navel-gazer. But the reason I don't read much poetry is in there, somewhere.

Tell me a story. Ideally about someone who is not yourself. Give it weight, conflict, drama. If you do a good job, I might listen. This is true of prose as well as poetry.
posted by Sara C. at 3:54 PM on April 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

Reading this thread, it strikes me that people have much higher expectations for poetry than for most other genres - for instance, I read a lot of fancy-pants snob science fiction, but it does not bother me in the least that there's far more lasers-and-space-babes science fiction than the kind I read. And I'm certainly not bothered by the existence of genres I don't enjoy - the nouveau roman? Tom Wolfe-ish stuff? Gonzo journalism? Self help books? Whatevs. But bad poetry or poetry that people don't like really seems to generate a lot of resentment.

And okay, some poets are annoying - but some are really nice! And programmers are legendarily difficult (except my housemate...) but no one says they hate code because they hate programmers.

I don't even think that poetry has a lot of status in the US--it's not even envy. Who are the rich and famous poets of our era? Would you recognize a famous poet if you passed one on the street? I might be able to pick out Adrienne Rich, if I were expecting her. Poets are actually fairly maligned...when I think of "a poet", in the abstract, I feel a wash of annoyance, even though poets have never done me wrong and honestly there's Lorca and Rich and Lorde and lots of poets I consider valuable and heroic as people and writers.

I don't resent books about math or the work of Alain Badiou, even though both of them make my head hurt. But I resent poetry. Why is that? What has poetry ever done to me?

And about "bad" poetry that is so embarrassing. From whence does the embarrassment spring? Like, if some dude wants to go up on stage and read mediocre verse about his feelings, why does that bug me when I am exposed to much, much worse and more mendacious news and advertising every day of the week? After all, I chose to go the coffee house, right? I could just take my latte and go home.

What is it with poetry? What do I expect poetry to do? Why does its failure bug me so much?
posted by Frowner at 4:06 PM on April 27, 2011 [10 favorites]

I do read poetry, not a whole lot but at least some, but there's a particular affectation which seems common nowadays that just grates me: Random line breaks.

I certainly don't mind line breaks in poems with meter, or line breaks that serve to highlight the distinction (or contrast, or similarity, or whatever) between the contents of subsequent lines, or line breaks that serve as pauses. But if there are just random line breaks, for no apparent reason, I start feeling that the author took a very very short prose story and attempted to gussy it up.

I have nothing against very very short prose stories - there have been many poems that I've read and hated that I think I would have liked, word for word, if it were just an unformatted sentence or paragraph. It's the "I need to gussy this up by doing something ridiculous" aspect that grates on me.

Further, I get a feeling like if I were to state my opinion on this matter to someone who is really into this kind of poetry, that I would be snobbily dismissed as an obvious inferior who just doesn't get it, without so much as an attempt at an explanation of what it is that I don't get. And I suspect that no such explanation would be forthcoming because there is nothing about it to get.
posted by Flunkie at 4:12 PM on April 27, 2011

When I think of poetry, I think of how movie critics will describe a graceful or mesmerizing scene as "poetic." But then I open up a poetry journal and the inert stuff inside is never anything like that.
posted by Victorvacendak at 4:13 PM on April 27, 2011

And it's easy to say "oh blah blah goths and high school poetry journals and boring english teachers"...but I enjoy lots of things I hated in high school. And I wouldn't consider it a mark of pride to say "there's this thing, and in high school only annoying people liked it, and that has so marked me that I not only don't like it but I feel angry about it!"

What is with poetry?
posted by Frowner at 4:13 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

If I want to hear rhyming words, I listen to music -- but I'm the kind of music lover who doesn't pay much attention to the lyrics (so even foreign language singing is okay). And you know how in books sometimes, the author injects a poem? I always skip over those. Why? See above.
posted by Rash at 4:16 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like your thoughts, Frowner. I think part of it is that poetry has to, by definition encompass a lot of things to be "good." It has to be musical in some sense, and it has to carry meaning with the meaning, the sound, and the appearance of the words it uses. Not only that, but the meaning it carries has to have enough complexity so that it's not just wankery to go to all that trouble to express it. That's really hard (I know, I'm an awful poet), and it either takes a lot of existential despair or a lot of arrogance to think you can tackle that in any public sense.

I studies poetry some, and I don't read it. In fact, the only poets I've ever read for pleasure at all are Bukowski and Seamus Heaney. I feel like that's a pretty bizarre combination to be limited to, but I can't help it.
posted by cmoj at 4:17 PM on April 27, 2011

I'm another otherwise-voracious reader who doesn't read much poetry (and I'm a former English teacher who incorporated poetry into a lot of my units). Points above that apply to why I don't read it often:
- Most of it is too personal to the author for me to connect with
- Takes a lot of work and my reading time is sadly at a premium--if I have time to read, it's to relax, not work

I can and do appreciate poetry, but probably only because I had so much time in college to focus on it in all its forms, styles, and time periods. But it's more of an intellectual experience than an emotional one.

Also: I do love me some wry, funny poetry though. People like to laugh. This is why I <3 Billy Collins.
posted by smirkette at 4:31 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

What is it with poetry? What do I expect poetry to do? Why does its failure bug me so much?

Exactly. What do we expect poetry to do? Poetry used to be defined by a certain set of standards and a certain set of expectations. It had rules. The Modernists threw the rules out. What are the new rules? Without criteria, how can we judge the merit of a poem? Without criteria, poetry is measured solely by the individual's subjective response. The individual's subjective response is necessary, but maybe it's not enough by itself. Maybe critics should engage in a bit of old fashioned standard bearing. Maybe then the average reader wouldn't feel so intimidated, so alienated. Where is a good poetic manifesto when we need it? Doesn't anyone write those anymore?
posted by madred at 4:34 PM on April 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

i am very much a poetry guy--reading, writing, criticism and all. when people find out i'm a poet i hear a lot of the things people have been saying in this thread -- it's pretentious, it's difficult, it doesn't rhyme anymore and that's bad, and why don't they just write stories?

i have to feel like this is partly misinformed and partly the fault of the academy (which, after all, transformed poetry from communal performance into something to be pored over in the scriptorium all those centuries ago). i get the impression that a good many non-poetry readers were finally and definitively soured by studying modern poetry (i.e. the 20th century eliot-pound dead-white-guy continuum) in high school or college or whatever. and, really, a lot of those criticism are completely valid for that particular period of poetry. a huge portion of the modernist canon is incredibly pretentious and purposefully obscure.

thankfully, that poetry is pretty irrelevant these days. a lot of the major poetry of the past 15-20 years or so has worked pretty hard to dismantle the whole paradigm of Modernist Difficulty, and some of it's even turned back to traditional form (in a warped way, often, but hey, there's rhyme!). the thing is, nobody really seems to encounter interesting postmodern poetry outside of, say, senior literature seminars. and since a lot of it looks like scary modernist nonsense, it triggers this reflex in people that says i'm not going to understand this and they don't want me to. i'm thinking particularly about LANGUAGE poetry and the gertrude stein-derived corners of the avant-garde, stuff that can be quite interesting and funny and playful if you've spent time reading structural linguistics and stuff. which nobody ever has. the words are spread out all over the page and broken up and sometimes they're typed on top of each other and it's very scary and forbidding for the kind of person who reads for fun and isn't writing a dissertation on olsonian projective verse.

there's a whole other side of postmodernism that treats poetry like standup comedy or Looney Tunes or something like that, poets who read like they're having fun writing poems! Paul Muldoon is one of my favourites and seems to go over pretty well with non-poetry readers. Carol Ann Duffy can be a lot of fun too. and not in a flimsy light-verse way. they're as meaty in close reading as they are just plain enjoyable. performance poetry doesn't get its due from academics because it is anti-academic and meant to entertain, and though I can't claim to be an expert on it there's some incredible work happening in that field as well.

another thing i've noticed is that people seem to think of poetry as deficient because it's not (usually) narrative or factual or whatever. the main thing to keep in mind, as far as i'm concerned, is that good poetry does for metaphor what a novel, say, does for its story. it's able to connect two disparate ideas and make you understand the connection between them by playing with words. it doesn't often matter if you're not really picking up on every obscure reference to mesopotamian mythology or whatever, but that seems to be enough to turn people off altogether.

so! do a poetry guy a favour and pick up a big ugly anthology of contemporary poetry from your local library or used bookshop, spend an hour or two flicking through and reading everything that catches your eye. read the ones you really like twice. and now you are a poetry reader!
posted by tealsocks at 4:41 PM on April 27, 2011 [9 favorites]

We live in a world where there are literally millions of books I'll never have time to read, not to mention paintings and songs and essays and short stories and movies and long-form magazine articles and tv shows and comic books and foods and plays and internet memes I can't possibly find time to enjoy. There's just too much culture. In that world, I think that the onus is on people who produce content or recommend it to others to justify their existence.

I don't read poetry because it doesn't rank high enough in the hierarchy of things I'd like to consume. There's some pretty good poetry. I've liked a lot of the poetry I have read. But in a world where Joyce Carol Oates is still writing a new novel once a year and Girl Talk keeps making albums and I still haven't tasted every beer on the menu at the bar below my apartment? Reading poetry just isn't a priority.

To get me to prioritize it, your work doesn't just have to be good. It has to be in about the top thousand things in the world that I have heard about but haven't tried yet. And I don't feel the least bit "stupid or misinformed" when I say that there is almost no poetry that has made the cut. And I resent the implication that I might be somehow less than because I've chosen to consume Sondheim musicals and and The Economist and the occasional John Grisham novel instead of poetry.
posted by decathecting at 4:47 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I read a lot - but the only poet whose work I have sought out is ee cummings.

When I want poetry I listen to music. Lyrics are the only poetry I give a shit about.
posted by Windigo at 4:56 PM on April 27, 2011

I like some poetry, but my tastes developed when I was still a literature student and I wouldn't even know how to begin finding similar authors today. I like sassy, snarky stuff like Alexander Pope, and clever (but NOT flowery) metaphors like John Donne. I have a book of Margaret Atwood's poetry that I really enjoy, but most of the poems in there were more like little stories written in unusual ways.

I've enjoyed other poets to some degree, but it was all in the context of scholarly study. Shakespeare's sonnets have a lot more resonance when there is a teacher around to help explain some of the context and social impetuses and highfalutin metaphors. Without that, I feel kind of intimidated by the prospect of reading poetry, and in fact what little modern poetry I have read (just, like, on bus ads and stuff, in truth) leaves me feeling like I'm a clod who missed the point. :)

This all being said, I recently discovered that one of my clever coworkers published a book of poetry written from the perspective of self-aware robots, which I feel would be relevant to my interests. Perhaps I give poetry short shrift.
posted by jess at 5:14 PM on April 27, 2011

I'm a poet working on his first manuscript and am too immersed to have a clear outsider viewpoint. But I'm curious and hoping to address some of these concerns in my work, or at least be conscious of them.

Once upon a time poetry did have the stuff a lot of people here are complaining about - narrative, humor, outward lookingness. Why it should have lost these good things? I suspect because of modern writers' taking the jackass notion that they are writing for themselves rather than for others. I imagine there would be more and wider poetry reading if poets still wrote things like Casey at the Bat or archy and mehitabel or even works of P.G.Wodehouse. Relatively short, clear, entertaining, quotable, forgettable. But over time, returnable to. Make these your standards and you might just bring the form back into fashion, and good luck to you.

(While casting about for the Wodehouse example, I found his essay The Alarming Spread of Poetry. Which might offer some insight of its own.

And Sondheim has some thoughts on the difference between lyrics and poetry.)
posted by IndigoJones at 5:24 PM on April 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Poems refers to previous poems and I haven't read them.
posted by Jagz-Mario at 5:52 PM on April 27, 2011

Most of my favorite songwriters are poetic enough.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 5:53 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

No plot. There are exceptions, obviously, but I read those exceptions. I do have several books of poetry, and there are many poems I love, but I don't read them for pleasure.
posted by KathrynT at 5:53 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Only one of them was English, and he became a naturalized American. As to his wealth, he earned every penny of it through a hell of a lot of hard work.

Mock them if you like, young Tealsocks, but they are still read.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:55 PM on April 27, 2011

I want information. Usually by reading nonfiction, but if I'm going to read fiction, it has to be rewarding in moving the story along. I don't have the patience to puzzle out the author's big idea, parse where sentences begin and end, or appreciate how the words would sound if read out loud.
posted by lakeroon at 6:42 PM on April 27, 2011

With apologies to my poetry-writing boyfriend...

An art form based on obscuring meaning can make for some seriously frustrating reading. Especially for those of us who are more literal-minded, words are supposed to explain.
posted by Space Kitty at 6:48 PM on April 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

I've been reading this thread throughout the day, and much of what I would say has already been better put.
I can read and enjoy poetry. Auden is so frequently mentioned and alluded to that it's hard not to seek him out at one point, read and appreciate what he does with the form. I am a student of the Great War, and it's fascinating just how important poetry and the soldier poets were to that time.
I read the New Yorker and Harper's, used to read the Atlantic Monthly, read American Scholar, Virginia Quarterly, Granta, et al, and very seldom am I moved to do more than glance over the poetry i find therein. Never do i save a passage, as i do with prose passages in most if not all books i read and many of those same magazines.
I try to read poetic writers, and enjoy wordsmithery, but couldn't name a contemporary poet.
I guess my answer to your question is that I do try to read the stuff, but I don't seek it out because the stuff that comes to me doesn't entertain me, inspire me, thrill me, make me think or even make me look twice at the name of the poet.
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:01 PM on April 27, 2011

I read a lot, write a lot, and find it very hard to process most poetry. Why? I speak in prose, I think in prose, and almost everything I read is prose. Poetry may as well be Japanese to me. It's a 'different way of thinking' in my linguistic schema. I recognize, however, that this is where much of its value comes from, but I haven't the time to absorb it and adapt to that (yet).
posted by wackybrit at 8:16 PM on April 27, 2011

What are you're reasons for not reading the stuff?

There's an oversupply. A ridiculous oversupply. I've read a pretty good swath of 'the canon' - but when you look at a bookstore's "Poetry" section for something new, there's a lifetime's-worth of stuff to choose from. Take a look at Wikipedia's annual round-up. If I read nothing else but new poetry, I still couldn't begin to keep up.

If somebody acts as a gatekeeper, and actually points me toward something ("Here, you might like THIS"), then fine, I'll probably try it, and probably like it.

The oversupply is also consequence of our rising literacy and of our rising leisure time. If the Elizabethans were able to produce (say) 5? 10? poets worth reading, then there must be 1,000 poets working today who are arguably worth reading. It's just too many/too much. I go look for something else to read, something with a better signal-to-noise ratio.

I don't have the time to find new poetry - especially since today's poets are also competing - not just with each other, and not just with the thousands of would-be poets flooding the world - but they're also competing with the best poets of the past, the ones who have come down to us because they're fucking awesome. Good luck standing out in that crowd.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 9:08 PM on April 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I do read some poetry, especially older poets (Blake, Donne) and poetry meant for children especially. Childishly, my favorite poet is probably Robert Louis Stevenson and his Child's Garden of Verses. A testament to my juvenile tastes, perhaps.

So many children's picture books are written as poems - just think of Dr. Seuss! And I would wager most here like quite a few children's authors who write in that mode. Perhaps because the picture book is explicitly for reading aloud?

Another pure poet (not picture book format) usually relegated to children's literature, Shel Silverstein, plays around with words and language, but it has a different feeling from some of the modern poetry linked above.

At their worst, picture book poetry and pure poetry children's authors can descend into sentiment, twee, and schmaltz, but seldom do they become inscrutable or witholding, as many seem to feel some adult poets are.

I don't know what it is about children's poets, but I feel like they're in a different class and escape much of the faults (and criticism) of poets writing for adults.

Maybe this ties into people feeling that poetry is hard and not liking the sensation of feeling like they have been shut out. Inclusive versus exclusive?
posted by clerestory at 9:12 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I find it very hard to find poetry I like and I'm not willing to work very hard to find it. It's not as if friends recommend poems to me.

Also, after years of being in school I tend to speed read/skim everything and its hard for me to break out of that mode, which makes reading poetry a bit exhausting.
posted by whoaali at 9:54 PM on April 27, 2011

I don't read poetry for pleasure for several reasons. For casual reading, I'm looking for the equivalent of bubble-gum pop in book form, and even if I do read a "serious" novel that makes me work at reading it, I also have something pretty light and fluffy going at the same time.

I can tolerate second-rate, even third-rate fiction, but poetry that misses the mark annoys me tremendously. A badly-written piece of fiction can easily be carried along by a fast-paced, interesting plot. Essentially, I'm reading so fast to find out what happens next that I skip over questionable word choice or awkward construction.

Poetry doesn't have the plot to fall back on, in most cases. Each syllable of a poem has to be chosen carefully, because as a reader I am going to examine each syllable for several seconds, at least. A good poem has words and lines that echo in my mind for a very long time because they say so much or maybe even just sound so good together, and I'm going to be searching for something to cling to in the poem. Very few contemporary poems/poets can stand up to that kind of close scrutiny.

Very few novels could either, it's just that if they have a good plot it doesn't matter. The Harry Potter series can be undeniably clumsy and over-long, but the plot carries it. The tremendously successful Twilight series has passages and maybe even whole books that made me cringe physically. (I'd say at least three of the four, which gives away the shameful but relevant truth that I read all four - hey, I needed to know what happened to Bella!) Or for a non-YA example, imagine doing a close reading of Stephen King's Carrie.

I haven't seen much of it written for adults, but novels in verse, such as Ellen Hopkins' Crank, really are fun to read.

The plot - the story - is definitely part of why I read what I do. Even creative non-fiction is built around a story.

And then there's this.

I do find poetry meaningful, I do connect with it, I don't find it difficult. I go back and read old favorites again and again - I'm one of those weirdos who loved Blake and Yeats and TS Eliot, and all the WWI poets. But with rare exception, contemporary poetry doesn't connect with me intellectually or metrically. It comes across as a maudlin display of angst rather than an attempt to say something meaningful and real - kind of like the bad poetry so many of us wrote in high school.

In the "can't win for losing" vein, when it does resonate, contemporary poetry can be such an emotional experience that too much of it would drain me. For example: My grandfather died six months ago, and there are still lines from Tony Harrison's Long Distance poems that just appear unbidden in my head - poems I hadn't read in at least 10 years, probably, but that come back to me now and never fail to end in tears, now even more so than when I first read them.

I wish I could say I'd read equally meaningful poetry in the last decade, but I haven't. (I'd welcome any suggestions, by the way.)

I think once I finished grad school and stopped being assigned to read poetry, I almost withdrew from it, the same way I withdrew from watching tear-jerker movies as I got older and realized I could watch happy movies instead without being somehow "less than" because of it.

Or kinda like how I won't read any book about a dog because I figure I don't want to read about it when the dog eventually dies.

So, yeah, give me those suggestions for good contemporary poets and I'll collect their works, put them on the shelf, and read them one day as punishment? I am such a contradiction even I don't know what to do with myself, and I'm afraid I've been no help at all. I think I need to go to sleep now.

posted by Jaie at 10:30 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have an MFA in poetry, and I never write it these days and almost never read it. The stuff I once loved, I still love--like Richard Siken's You Are Jeff or Jeffrey McDaniels' Absence on anything from Margaret Atwood's Power Politics. Oh, and Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. Lewis Carroll. Carl Sandurg.

But I was told during graduate school that they weren't good poets. Literally, I was told that. My studies were mostly focused on people like Donald Justice and Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath, who are okay, I guess, but who really just left me cold. There was a heavy focus in my school on metrics, which I have never cared a whit about, and still don't, and an expectation that our poems would be about the "right" things--stuff like man's relationship with nature (*cough* gardening) or ekphrastic poems. Poems set in churches.

I realize now that tastes in poetry are deeply personal--but a lot of the academy is built around things like being oblique and clever, and I was always interested in being accessible and telling a good story rather than revealing profundities, instead. It's rare these days that I read a poem that hits me in the ovaries, so to speak.

Space Kitty's said it pretty well: "An art form based on obscuring meaning can make for some seriously frustrating reading. Especially for those of us who are more literal-minded, words are supposed to explain." I feel this way, and I've written reams of poems. Poetry's potential power, I always felt, was in its ability to communicate very precise ideas through very careful word choice. It makes good poems almost like magic spells, or telepathy. I find most modern poetry to be, contrary to that, exceedingly solipsistic.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:31 PM on April 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

There are far more bad poets than bad novelists, not least because writing even a bad novel takes a lot more work. If you're writing poetry past the age of 20 you better have a really good reason for doing so. The best poetry spins words into music and allows you to enjoy language for its own sake. It should never be a puzzle to be deciphered any more than a butterfly should be autopsied to find the source of its beauty. There's no meaning in most of Dylan Thomas's work, for instance, he's just drunk on words and is so good he gives the reader a taste of the heady mixture too. Louise Gluck is a poet who combines beautiful music with some actual ideas, as does Shelley and others of his ilk. However it's a long time since poetry was at the centre of cultural expression and most poetry, rather than illuminate novel ideas with crystal clarity involves obfuscating plodding commonplaces. Worse though is the poetry of utterly pedestrian prose cut up into random lengths to make it somehow seem profound.

The best poetry, like the best orgasm, lifts you up out of your body, gives you a glimpse of the transcendent and then settles you back down again, slightly changed. If you read Sylvia Plath's 'Elm' you never see a tree in quite the same way again. Nearly all poetry is rubbish though and if anyone introduces themselves to you as a poet and isn't John Keats then you can be pretty certain they're going to be insufferable. Nearly everyone who writes poetry should treat it as the artistic masturbation it almost always is and do it behind closed doors and not show it to anyone, nor talk about it at parties. That said, I'll never tire of reading 'Sheep in Fog' or 'The House on Marshland' and though I've no idea whatsoever what Rimbaud's going on about, you can't read his work - in translation or the original - without feeling invigorated with the sheer joy of being alive.
posted by joannemullen at 10:41 PM on April 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Oh, and before I went all grad school, I had this ambition to write poetry that people wanted to read, poems that bridged the gap between poetry and fiction, poems that touched people.

Grad school cured me of that. Writers who do that--say, Billy Collins (who I often quite like)--were viewed with scorn and derision. You should do it, though. A writer should care about their audience, I think. I became convinced that I couldn't, and still be a poet, so I wrote other things.

You should be braver than me.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:42 PM on April 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

I love poetry. The problem is finding it.

The fact that relatively few people read it and there's so few centralized places to read or be exposed to new poetry means that it takes a lot of work to find, which means I read less of it.

The public library I go to has very few books by contemporary poets, and while the bookstore is generally better, I'm basically going in blind. It really is a lot of work to find the poetry I like, and like others have mentioned, even with the poets I do like, the actual number of poems of theirs that I love in one of their collections can sometimes be just a few, making it difficult to justify purchasing the whole book. The niche status of poetry also means poetry collections can be hard to find or expensive, further deterring a purchase.

Most of the poetry I've found that I've liked have either been through other people, through classes I've taken, or various recommendations I've seen on metafilter threads. It's been very, very hard for me to find poetry I like on my own.

I also tend to read poetry differently than prose. Poetry isn't really suited for sustained reading. With the books of poetry I have, I generally pick up one and read a few, and just let them linger for a while. It fulfills a different need for me than reading prose, but it also doesn't always fit when I'm in the mood to read something.

I also very much agree with what Jaie wrote. I was trying to find a way to say it, but he/she basically said what I wanted to say, in regards to reading poetry that doesn't do it for you, and how it doesn't have the same things to fall back on like plot and story. It's frustrating to read poetry that doesn't work for you since it sometimes feels like you get nothing out of it.

I'd really love to read more poetry, I'd just like a better way of being able to find poetry I like.
posted by wander at 11:02 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't like it.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:13 PM on April 27, 2011

I used to read a lot of poetry, but I think that all the amazing stuff that poetry can do is now allowed in fiction too. I mean, you read Steve Erickson or David Foster Wallace, and there just doesn't seem to be a need for poetry anymore - we get poetry AND characters AND plot!
posted by OrangeDrink at 11:15 PM on April 27, 2011

I read quite a lot, but am not sure if it's reading 'widely' - I mostly confine myself to 'literary' novels, especially literature-in-translation.

Having said that...there was a period of probably a few years where poetry was what I read most, maybe around my late 20s, but since then I rarely or never try to find new stuff or even re-read old favourites. During that time I was mostly into Denise Levertov, Kenneth Patchen, old-school Chinese poets & 'classical' Japanese haiku, as well as I guess a fair few of the Beat poets.

The main problems I have with poetry are not around 'difficulty' or 'concentration' - it's just a different paradigm of reading, and it's actually great, the way you can pick up a volume, and just flick randomly until you find one that hits the particular spot you want at the time.

The problems are probably more around:

1. Availability - bookstores usually have tiny poetry sections, with all the usual suspects - Yeats, Pound, Byron, Elliot, cummings, blah blah blah. Hard to choose a poet you want to read unless you can have a flick through. Buying online just doesn't cut it, and that's often the only way you can find the less obvious poets.

2. Availability part 2 - books are expensive in Australia, so I try to buy 2nd hand or at market stalls etc as far as possible. Poetry isn't in wide circulation, and I think people tend to hold onto poetry books more than they do novels, because they can sell a novel they suspect they won't read again, whereas a good book of poetry can be dipped into at will, even 5 minutes at a time.

3. Knowledge - if you like a particular poet, it's hard to know where to go next. With literature, it's much easier to follow 'bloodlines' to similar sorts of authors.

4. Variability - related to point 3, poets have such distinctive styles that even if Poet B is mentioned in the same breath as Poet A, their differences in style mean that you might love A but hate B.

5. Separating the wheat from the chaff - related to all of the above. Really hard to find new stuff you like as much as your existing favourites.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:01 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

(oh yeah, and Rimbaud, too...having been reminded by joannemullen's comment above)
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:04 AM on April 28, 2011

the academy (which, after all, transformed poetry from communal performance into something to be pored over in the scriptorium all those centuries ago)

I think this is an interesting point.

A lot of us still love poetry. We just call it "music" now.

The poets that aren't doing poetry as communal performance (AKA songwriters and rappers) are doing it for academia. Those are the "poets" we're talking about here. It's no wonder nobody reads their work - they're not doing it for the people, they're doing it for scholars. Most people aren't scholars.
posted by Sara C. at 3:37 AM on April 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

I hate poetry because I hate fiction. If I'm going to sit down and read something (and when I have time, I read a lot.), it sure as hell better teach me something. Facts. Numbers. Dates. Something I might actually be able to use. You couldn't pay me to read a poetry book, but an instruction manual? The dictionary? Flyers/brochures? I'd love to! I usually read junk mail start to finish, but I struggle to make it half way through a poem. (I'm... weird. I know.)
posted by hasna at 4:03 AM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm not big on poetry but have found some good stuff in the beat poets like Ferlinghetti. I also bought a book of Leonard Cohen's poetry and it is very good - a likeable extension of his songwriting. Probably the extra thing about Cohen is I know his voice and it is amazing. I can hear his voice when I read his poetry.

I'd say if you want your poetry more accessible then have it read by someone with a great voice and distribute it by mp3.
posted by JJ86 at 6:26 AM on April 28, 2011

Here is a good example of Cohen's poetry. That is hot and just can never have the same impact if read in a book.
posted by JJ86 at 6:31 AM on April 28, 2011

I don't know why I don't read poetry. I also don't RTFM. I've been know to post in threads where I didn't read the FPP. Sometimes I will go back and read the post. I start a lot of books and don't finish them. Sometimes I don't make it past a few pages.

And yet, I read this entire rather long thread. Some of it I skimmed. (you can't skim poetry. Why is that?) And I clicked on some of the poems referenced and I read some of them and stopped reading others (bailed on line 2, as the AWK error message puts it). And I liked some of the poems, but don't ask me which. I didn't bookmark any of the, The only ones I remember were both by Margaret Atwood, though I can't remember much more than that.

I think I read this long thread because I wanted to find out why I didn't read poetry, and though I agreed, in part, with many posts, and even favorited a few, I still don't really know the answer.

When I was younger, and hated myself, I read more poetry. I also finished most books I started, because, if I didn't enjoy the, or didn't get them, I assumed it was my fault. Now, I'm quicker to assume it's the writer's fault, and will risk being wrong because there's another one right behind this one, so who has the time to second guess?

I remember Vonnegut gave a chat on Prodigy in which he said that the writer's job is to be a good date. (No, I wasn't on Prodigy--I was consulting for them.) And I still remember this. Reading is about a relationship and relationships have their difficulties. I've married people that today I wouldn't even converse with at a party. Unless there was no one else, perhaps.
So part of it is circumstances. I read some poems because they happened to be in this thread. I wouldn't have read them in a library.

What does it take to be a good date? Instructions for that are everywhere. AskMe has many. You should look good. You should listen a lot. Ask the Other about themselves. A poem can't listen, but it can empathize with the reader & not just drone on about itself. But it also has to draw the reader in. You want your date to make you feel like an important part of the relationship--to be uniquely needed, somehow. To like themselves in the relationship. I can see a poem doing that. You feel a connection with the poet that transcends your distance and you like the feeling of being known and of knowing the other in an unexpected context, but poems mostly don't do this. More often, like a bad relationship, you try and impress, or you feel guilty or stupid. Stopping reading is easier than leaving a date in the middle.

Sometime you'll go out with someone because you were set up by a friend. Your friend may even caution you: "I know you usually don't like this sort of person but give them a try." That's why I clicked on some of the poems in this thread and read them.

I read a book on jazz once (didn't finish it) which said that each note should be about 50% probable. More likely than that, it gets boring, less likely it's too alien. Too much poetry errs on one side or the other of this mark.

Too poetic, didn't read? I know what you mean. It's hard to engage the other. Harder, when you're a poem, which means you start off with a bad reputation to begin with.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:38 AM on April 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

I've never read poetry I've enjoyed. Maybe my high school is to blame for force feeding me bad poetry. Or maybe I'm just dead inside and incapable of being moved by words alone.

When I read I'm usually more interested in the story than the message.
posted by valadil at 9:44 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Jeez. Carl Sandburg, Margaret Atwood not good poets? Rod McKuen is my idea of a not-good poet. (Actually, he's my idea of a cringingly bad poet of the kind I was thinking of in my first comment.)

I used to teach literature, and specifically a course in war literature. So I had my students reading the Great War poets, and Randall Jarrell, Bruce Weigl, and some other soldier-poets, along with memoirs and fiction and some representative films about war. I'm not a spectacular teacher, but I had students come to me and tell me that they were reading and appreciating poetry for the first time in their lives. They "got" the use of the sonnet form to describe the horrible deaths of soldiers by poison gas or drowning in mud, and the parallels between Dante's underworld and Owen's "Strange Meeting," and they could write intelligently about subject and structure and meter. It was poetry as witness, and whenever I've read that kind of verse or taught it, the effect has always been the same. The imagery is so vivid, and the poet is communicating a dreadful urgency: he/she has something very important to tell the reader, and he must communicate it audibly and accurately, and the reader feels a very real burden in receiving the message.

I've also taught Carolyn Forche's Against Forgetting, an anthology of witness poetry--that and the Oxford Book of Modern War are antidotes to poetic narcissism.
posted by tully_monster at 11:35 AM on April 28, 2011

I have kind of an instinctive "ugh" reaction to poetry, even though I have read some I've found very enjoyable, thought-provoking and moving. Yet the thought of reading poetry makes me feel uncultured, inadequate, and bored. I hate feeling like I'm supposed to enjoy or appreciate something as high art, and I think my taste in poetry may be embarrassingly unsophisticated.

Even if I find a poem that moves me or has beautiful language or makes me see something in a new light, the experience seems rather limited, like it's just this one, little moment. To me, novels are a weightier, more meaningful experience and they don't feel like work to read and properly appreciate.

To sum up, too much pretentious and bad poetry out there, too hard to find good stuff, too much work to "get", too little reward, too little time to read as it is...just too many other things higher on my list of things to do, I guess.
posted by spiny at 8:45 PM on April 28, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks you all, this was totally great and thought-provoking to read. Even though I'm an avid poetry reader, I empathize with a lot of what was said here. I think there's definitely qualities that are inherent to poetry that's not going to jive with people (lack of plot, obfuscating meaning) but there are a lot of poets that are needlessly alienating, navel-gazey, and don't do much to further one's sense of wonder about the world. And there's a hell of a lot of it, which why the signal-to-noise issue is of quite a concern, and easy to see why people get turned off it.

I don't know how much the comments here are are going to change how I approach my work (I have a bit of a terrible allergy to rhyme and meter!) but I'm very much into my stuff being more 'outward-looking' and trying be a good 'date' as someone earlier put it. I still want the reader to do a lot of work, but I'd like to meet them halfway.

Anyway, thanks again! Ill be coming back to this thread whenever I need a good sobering. :)
posted by troubles at 10:24 AM on April 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh, one other thing. That Atwood poem quote earlier had a line missing (a fish hook) It goes like this:

You Fit Into Me by Margaret Atwood

You fit into me

like a hook into an eye

a fish hook

an open eye
posted by troubles at 12:26 PM on April 29, 2011

I feel like most often poetry just doesn't offer the same depth that prose does. That's not to say that this applies to all poetry - I have read some wonderful poets but more often than not, poems tend to be somewhat limited I've found. When I say prose is deeper I mean in terms of character development, emotional development, reader attachment/ involvement, interesting and unexpected plots. Maybe it's just a preference. I like to get "sucked in" to whatever I'm reading - book, lengthy feature article, journal article, anything.

But now that I'm thinking about it, I may put poetry in the same category as flash fiction, which definitely has a place but like poetry does not necessarily garner mass appeal.

Maybe that's why. People just aren't exposed to the organization and composition of poetry and flash fiction like they are with books and that could possibly result in being unconsciously uncomfortable with the format and style.
posted by jay.eye.elle.elle. at 12:58 PM on April 29, 2011

I still want the reader to do a lot of work, but I'd like to meet them halfway.

Yeah, that kind of approach is really not going to win people over to poetry. Write for the sake of writing, write because you have something to say -- hell, write to make money. But don't write to do "the reader" the favor of creating work for him.
posted by headnsouth at 6:41 PM on April 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

Hi dudes. Poet here--I won this thing, which is sort of a big deal in poetry which means it has a cultural significance tantamount to being the Candyland champion of America. I'm going to continue my habit of trying to make a persuasive case for values no one cares about in a thread that's always over.


1. YES YOU ARE RIGHT. I grew up in a middle-class immigrant family and was ESL. We didn't have poetry books in the house. I didn't really know poetry existed as someone normal people read until late high school or early college. As I often joke, my poetry career when I decided to apply to a poetry class rather than a fiction class because the fiction class required thirty pages and poetry class only required five. In the rare occasions I teach a workshop, I get students to cut out anything stiff, portentous, and obviously beautiful in their work. I also encourage things like plots and narrative conflict to make poems more dynamic. Once you get used to it, you find you can't read prose because nothing's ever happening. It's just twenty pages of people tying their shoelaces. Poetry doesn't have logistics.

2. WHY PEOPLE DON'T READ POETRY. Okay, this is how I'm reading this thread: People don't read poetry for various reasons. The reasons may be that poetry is too hard, boring, shallow, obnoxious, etc. I think that reasons are also things like: 1) We don't have good poetry pedagogy in this country--we have bad teachers who don't themselves like poetry and force a silly High Modernist / New Critical tonic down students throats. Most poets I know are cool young people who are usually seen making out in the corner of a bar and who run their own presses, make handmade books and throw awesome parties. How awesome would it be to take a poetry class from someone like that? 2) Poetry has no money in it, so there's no distribution or marketing system, so it makes it hard to find a gateway drug or know how or why poetry should interest you. 3) Even though there's no money in it, poetry is viewed as a very classed art form--a symbol of cultural attainment. I sense a lot of shame in the thread. How do I know if a poem or bad if there's no one to tell me? And if I don't get it, does that mean there's something wrong with me? 4) Because poetry is only encountered in a class room, it ends up seeming like homework. Now that graphic novels are getting respectable, I've had non-comics-readers tell me how reading comic books for class also feels like work.

3. YOU ARE REQUIRED TO HAVE FUN. What this means is that you should read shit with the aim of having fun. Don't be a close-minded grump, but don't also get self-conscious if you're waiting for the ride to start and nothing's happening. Lawrence Levine writes about how the values of sanctification took over American arts in the 20th century, so that arts like ballet and opera became semi-religious cultural vitamins and cultural venues became places where you shut up, get improved, and generally don't enjoy yourself. This is part of what people are objecting to in poetry, but not many people these days write poetry that's meant to be decoded. A lot of poetry is akin to stand-up comedy and influenced by pop culture. If you want to wash the navel-gazing sanctity out of your brain, watch this clip of Frank O'Hara reading HAVING A COKE WITH YOU.

4. POETRY = THRILLPOWER. I've been reading INFINITE JEST lately and, while I have mixed feelings about it, it strikes me as being very similar to poetry: lots of pastiche from different registers of language, playfulness of form, layering of patterns, manipulations of different voices. Sometimes the reason I like poetry isn't because it's particularly meaningful, but because it offers pure intellectual thrillpower--more ideas-per-line than any other medium. Richard Siken's CRUSH is like a mesmerizing porno snuff film directed by Michel Gondry under a lake inside your dreams: "He was pointing at the moon but I was looking at his hand. / He was dead anyway, a ghost.". Zbigniew Herbert's fairy tale about an emperor who turned into a wood louse. Bhanu Kapil writes poems about cyborgs and blood; in INCUBATION, the cyborg is a metaphor for the assimilated immigrant. Shanxing Wang is a mechanical engineer who teaches ping pong and protested at Tiananmen Square. He writes poems that express love using differential equations. Tan Lin, who is not to be mistaken for Tao Lin, is a poet laureate of boredom whose books have been released via RSS feed and plagiarised Wikipedia and American Apparel. Thalia Field's last book is filled with pigeons and UFOs. Poetry can be a medium that's all special effects. In a good way.

5. POETRY AS DIY INDIE SCENE. A lot of poetry is narcissistic, self-obsessed, high-toned banality, just as a lot of fiction is harlequin romance novels and mass-market airport novels about law firms and a lot of movies are cynical romantic comedies and plotless CGI shoot-em-ups. The way I see it, the poetry scene today is less like a chamber quartet or lecture symposia and more like a DIY zine scene or indie record label--lots of cool young poeple making things largely outside of financial incentives. So, as Scott McCloud said about independent comics, poetry is one of the few places where you can hear people sounding like real people. I don't like most poetry, but the stuff I do like, I like more than anything else--because it's intimate, cheaper than therapy, and upgrades my perception. Run away from poetry in the New Yorker and from anyone who sounds like they spends their nights looking at themselves in the mirror without any clothes on, intoning deep things.

A lot of people like Joe Wenderoth's Letters to Wendy's, a series of prose poems as Wendy's comment cards. They're often about marijuana brownies, backdoor entry, and skulls. Amazingly, Anne Carson's LIFE OF TOWNS is online on Google Books. Another heartbroken neurotic philosopher, the lovely Louise Gluck is writing really wisdom-creating work at the intersection between prose and poetry. I like how Bob Hass essentially organizes poems based on associative leaps.


posted by johnasdf at 11:02 AM on April 30, 2011 [16 favorites]

Response by poster: Hey, thanks johnasdf! And congratulations on the Yale prize. You made a lot of excellent points, and it's a pity that few are going to read it, but I guess that's how it goes. I'm looking forward to working through the links. Especially that Anne Carson book. Mmm. And I've been looking forward to getting around to Siken.

Glad you brought up DFW, because I've felt similarly. I think Infinite Jest would be up there on my list of reccomended readings for poets; mostly for his playfulness and disruption of language.
posted by troubles at 2:53 PM on May 1, 2011

Response by poster: Yeah, that kind of approach is really not going to win people over to poetry. Write for the sake of writing, write because you have something to say -- hell, write to make money. But don't write to do "the reader" the favor of creating work for him.
posted by headnsouth

I'm not sure if I explained that well. It's not the reason I write. I write to write. I'm just recognizing that it is work, in some way, to read poems, with the focused attention that many poems require. Many authors that I really admire, I have to struggle, in some way on the page with them. But there's a payoff, for lack of a better term, which makes it worth the experience.
posted by troubles at 3:18 PM on May 1, 2011

« Older Why did I have a seizure?   |   Pity the child that can't find a production of his... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.