This is the third and final contribution to this series, a conversation about poetry between Taupo’s Chris Eyes, Taumarunui’s A.D. Thomas, and myself. In my response to their pieces, I address some of my own favourite lyrics-as-poetry, and touch on my developing knowledge of New Zealand poetry past and present, while also expressing my feelings about the form as a whole.
Dear Chris & Dale:
I hate poetry.
I don’t mean to. It’s not a conscious choice I’ve made or a rejection of the form for any academic or aesthetic reason.
My loathing (or ambivalence) is not from a lack of trying to appreciate poetry. It’s a relationship issue. Sometimes you click with a new friend or a co-worker or a condiment.
Sometimes you don’t.
I’ve written poetry and read it, I’ve listened to it and quoted it. I know all the tried and tired truisms about how it surrounds us, how it is inescapable in its most innocuous and ambitious agendas.
But I’m just not that into it.
I prefer stories.
I do like poems that tell stories.
Let’s start with one of those: Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Heard of this one? It’s a song I grew up with in Canada, a ballad, as I was taught by my Grade 10 (Year 11) English teacher. Not the slow-dance kind of ballad, but the kind of poetry that tells a story, like Robert W. Service’s Cremation of Sam McGee or Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Lightfoot’s ballad is about a shipwreck that occurred in one of the Great Lakes:
With a load of iron ore,
twenty-six thousand tonnes more
than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
I don’t know how historical it is, but I loved finding out, by the authority of my English teacher, that a song I enjoyed could be considered poetry.
But it’s still just a bloody great story to me.
Bob Dylan was in our class poetry anthology too. So was Paul Simon. I use song lyrics, now that I’m the English teacher, hoping this will have the same effect on my students—opening them to poetry through a medium they already appreciate.
If they’re like I was, however, they will sing many a lyric without thinking much about it. Poetry surrounds us in song lyrics, but I’m not sure how deeply it penetrates. I can still remember a former principal of mine, an elderly woman, dancing at a Primary school disco fundraiser. She was dressed in motorcycle leathers, cheerily cavorting as the speakers pumped out, “I want to have sex on the beach!”
I’ve inflicted some Bruce Springsteen lyrics on my students. I make a trade-off: We study some songs they enjoy, and in return I get to introduce them to my favourite lyricist. Both of you may be thinking, “He must really not appreciate poetry if Bruce Springsteen is his standard.”
But Springsteen’s lyrics tell a story even when they don’t seem to, especially when you listen to his catalogue as widely as I do. And they tell my story in many regards. I’m not obsessed with cars, and I’m not familiar with the carnival New Jersey boardwalk life he sings about in his early work. But I do have a wife named Mary, like in his great ballad, The River, and in my favourite song, Thunder Road; and I long for a promised land in the physical and spiritual realms, and contemplate spontaneous and irrational ways to pursue it:
I’ve done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning and go to work each day
But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart
Find somebody itching for something to start
Here’s my favourite performance of The Promised Land for your viewing and listening pleasure:
So, I see myself as a character in a Springsteen song. And, as he has aged, twenty-odd years ahead of me, his new songs seem to guide me into new phases of my life. But, while his words mean a great deal to me, I don’t necessarily relate to them as poetry. They’re stories, with voices, and relevant scenarios.
Poetry is difficult. Even songs, without stories, are difficult for me. I insist, in a refrain to students, that we must pay attention to the lyrics, think about the words you are singing along with. But I can barely do it myself. I put a song on, surmising the lyrics might carry some weight, some beauty, but by the fifth line, my mind wanders if there is no plot thread to follow.
Even when I read the lyrics to help me focus, it drives me crazy if I can’t work it out. I think U2’s song, One, is marvelous. The blend of religious and romantic imagery is right up my alley.
You say love is a temple, love a higher law
Love is a temple, love the higher law
You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl
And I can’t be holding on to what you got
When all you got is hurt
But One is famous for no-one knowing what it means. Don’t get me wrong, I am, hypothetically, OK with grey areas, with shades of meanings and double meanings. But confusion is not my bag, and I am too easily confused by poetry.
Despite my delight in considering song lyrics as poetry, I’m suspicious, if only because of the influence of the music that accompanies them. I’m sure that’s what ran through people’s minds when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Obviously folks thought his words can stand alone, on the page as well as on the stage.
Last year, I was exposed to poetry on the stage in the form of the popular slam poetry. At the Ruapehu Writers Festival I watched performances by award-winning poets Carrie Rudzinksi and Ken Arkind, both Americans. They were terrific. Arkind finished the event with an intimidating and inspiring rendition of his poem, An Experiment in Noise. You can watch a version on YouTube:
As with song lyrics, I question how the words would hold up without the performance, without the accompanying gesticulations and intonations. But I suppose the bigger question is, “Does it matter?”
This is another reason I hate poetry: the difficulty we have in defining what is and what is not poetry. When I ask questions like, “Will it hold up” on the page, I risk being called a snob. If we accept everything as poetry, including billboard slogans and television jingles, we risk watering down the very concept of poetry, at least in Coleridge’s sense of “best words in the best order”. What’s the point of calling anything poetry if anything can be poetry?
When I was a child, my father wrote a poem called Blueberry Highway. It was published in The Antigonish Review, I think, which is impressive. Somehow, Mr Carter, one of my Grade 5 teachers found out about this, and asked if I could bring a copy to school. I did and, to my chagrin, he read it out to the entire grade level, numbering almost 100 students. The poem must have been written in free verse because, as I recall, it didn’t rhyme. Talk about embarrassing. Even Grade 5 students know poetry has to rhyme. Maybe I was scarred and that’s why I hate poetry. Don’t psychoanalyse me.
As for poetry “proper”, I studied canonical works during my English degree. I’ve read Wordsworth and Keats and the Brownings and Shakespeare, of course, though you can imagine I preferred his plays over his sonnets. I did memorise Sonnet 18 (“Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day) and can still recite it to impress students. During a difficult patch in my life, I memorised Rudyard Kipling’s If, which was handy to have rattling around in my head. I think I chose these because I understood them and they were relevant at the time.
And that’s the main reason I hate poetry: just not getting it. If my mind wanders around line 5 listening to song lyrics, it’s about the same point I hit a wall with most poems. I begin in earnest, feeling confident for a few lines, then I run into a phrase that sounds like it’s from a NASA technical readout.
And please don’t tell me your strategies. I teach them. I read the poem slowly, from start to finish, before returning to the beginning and easing my way through, line by line. I either lose patience or don’t have the capacity for appreciation. It’s the same with art. I know I should abide in the presence of the poem or a painting, absorb its imagery, its nuances, savour it like a fine wine (I’m no good with wine either), but I need a story, something that propels me along.
One thing I am enjoying these days is interacting with poets. The living kind, not the canonical kind. It’s being a teacher and a writer that has driven this. When I started teaching English at Taumarunui High School, I immersed myself in New Zealand literature, having a background in British, American, and Canadian works. Dale was instrumental in helping me transition, so I know who Curnow is, and Fairburn, and Hyde, and Hunt, and certainly Baxter. So, that experience has helped me “catch up”, so to speak.
But I knew Baxter already. I came across his work as a wanna-be writer, researching the Whanganui and Jerusalem regions in preparation for writing Redeeming Brother Murrihy. I’ve only read a small portion of Baxter’s work, and I don’t claim to understand half of what I’ve read, but his potent rendering of Catholicism, Māori Spirituality, and particularly his deep immersion in this place of Aotearoa is astounding and continues to draw me back to his words. I can say I have sat in the presence of his work.
But he’s gone now, and I’m writing new things which have led me to encounter the New Zealand poets of today. Some of these good people have appeared on my blog during my Weekend Name Drop series: Tim Upperton, Tim Jones, Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby. I’ve met others online or in person: Sarah Jane Barnett, Chris Tse, Hinemoana Baker, Bryan Walpert, Maria McMillan, I.K. Paterson-Harkness. Still others have made a splash on the New Zealand scene and whose trajectory I follow with interest: Ashleigh Young, Nick Ascroft, Hera Lindsay Bird. My interest in these poets as people, as writers engaged in their craft at this very moment, has spurred me on to reading their work. Of course, if lyricists can be poets, my son is a sort of a poet too, isn’t he?
Tim Upperton’s poem, The Night We Ate the Baby is one of my favourites:
And you were crying, too, the night we ate the baby, crying hard,
from inside a sorrow so deep I couldn’t reach you if I tried,
so I didn’t try because bad things never stop, it’s not in their nature
to stop, they maybe rest for a while and catch their breath and go on,
like the baby, like you crying
I still hate poetry and I’m probably reading their work for the wrong reasons. I’m as interested in their creative process and their careers as much, if not more than, what they have to say and how they say it. I don’t always find it relevant and I continue to crave prose, but reading their poetry is stretching me. It’s helping me climb another peak, built on the foundation of the canonical work I’ve studied in the past, but not buried in it. I encourage you to check some of these names out. These are the active New Zealand poets whose work will one day appear in the textbooks and “Best of” anthologies. Paula Green’s website, NZ Poetry Shelf is a great place to follow what’s happening.
Oh, and despite my loathing, I have written poetry, as I know you have. Don’t know why I do it. Sometimes, it’s just the best way to express yourself. I love it. You can find some of my stuff buried here on my website.