If you’re looking for someone who you can control with simple suggestions, I might be your boy. Last night, choosing a picture to use with this blog entry, I was looking at pictures of blueberries, and by the time I was finished, I knew that I was getting up this morning to go find blueberry pancakes for breakast, which I did. I’m like a little dog, really. Just give me a treat now and then and I’ll wag my tail when you look in my direction.
But what I really wanted to say was that last weekend I had dinner with a close friend who is a good poet, a serious poet, and like most people who are good at something, she still has not received the recognition she deserves.
One of the things I like about being with her is that when we’re together, as we sit up late talking, inevitably we end up spending part of that time talking about writing, and often about poetry. She knows about poetry, and the fact that I know so much less doesn’t get in my way at all. I just pretend like I know and state my firm opinions. (It was from her that I learned the hideous oxymoron “academic poetry”, a phrase that people at universities apparently use without shame.)
My friend and I disagree sometimes, but one thing we agree on is that the average person hates most modern poetry. And we agree that people want poetry to be accessible. By using the word “accessible” we’re already showing off our fancy-pants vocabulary, because the people who hate modern poetry would probably say “understandable”.
Understandably. But as to what that means, well now, there’s a big basketful of variegated opinions. Poetry, by its very nature, is both condensed and symbolic. An idea that might be expressed in a full sentence in prose can be just a short phrase in poetry, so the reader hopefully understands it and fills in the rest. And for the sake of literary interest (for fun, that is), interesting words and phrases are used to represent something else. As an ancient example, the Greek writer Homer in the Iliad uses the epithet “breaker of horses” to mean the character Hector.
So how much condensation and symbolism can you put in a poem and the reader still gets it? Naturally it depends on the reader, as some are very tolerant of working hard to figure things out, even enjoy doing it, while other readers quickly think “Screw this” when they read the line “Bright puddle where the soul-free cloud-life roams.”
I’m not an especially tolerant poetry reader myself. I’m not dumb and I am a fairly sophisticated reader, but I think the poet needs to do at least half the work and meet me in the middle. I don’t mind the fact that I might not totally understand a poem on first reading (though I would probably prefer to), but I have to at least enjoy things about it and get the basic idea. If instead my first reaction to a poem is “Huh?” then immediately I think “You had your chance” and I don’t read it again.
Now that I’ve set this blog entry up for you to feel good about rejecting poetry, I’m offering a poem of my own. I wrote it a few weeks ago, then revised it a bit from comments out of my writing group. I wrote this after reading a book of poems by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. Good or bad, my poem is influenced by the feelings I got from reading Rumi, but I also think of this as a yoga poem.
The Meaning of Blueberries
If you are eating breakfast
look at an occasional berry.
Notice the dark color.
Feel the soft firm roundness between two fingers.
Pay attention to the tang of flavor.
Blueberries are the reason you are on the earth.
As you wash a dog,
there is nothing more important than a clean dog.
When you are practicing the piano,
nothing in all the world is as crucial as where to put your fingers.
And if you decide to mow the lawn,
mowing evenly is the only thing in life that matters.
A minute from now,
the purpose of life will be different.