Columns > Published on January 16th, 2014

Poetry Fun-0-1: Intro to Poetry

I like poetry. A lot. Unfortunately, it's hard to find people who really share my love of this "art of uniting pleasure with truth," as Samuel Johnson once said.

Time out. I'm already quoting Samuel Johnson? Ugh. See, that's the kind of thing that makes people hate poetry in the first place: the sense that there's always something the poet knows that the reader doesn't, something the poet is smugly holding back, an intolerable smartness.

One of the great chasms that keeps casual literary travelers from approaching the Land of Poetry is that aura of inaccessibility. I could talk all day about form and language and meter and a million other technical aspects separating poetry from prose, but it's the sense that the author is trying to be dense, trying to be more intelligent than the reader that is often the most important difference. Prose is read; poetry is interpreted. This feeling that one gets of being left out when reading certain poems has contributed to its relegation to Classic status, an entire artform living in "should". Like classics, people often say that they should read more poetry, but that they don't because it's too distant, too difficult, too...boring. And these days, "boring" might as well mean "dead."

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

—"Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Which of course is complete bullshit. Poetry is not dead. Forget the great poems of the past, the stuff we all are forced to learn in middle school and high school and college, maybe one poem in twenty of which catch our interest at all; forget the "must-reads," the classics, the profound literary juggernauts that have incited movements and revolutions; forget the cultural seismographs, the late-night peace pipe poems that once-undergrads still quote from decades later; forget the dead: there is great poetry being written today, accessible poetry, funny poetry, romantic poetry, every kind of poetry, by people who weren't born before The Great War. Poetry is alive and well, and it is not going to be left behind.

I know poetry is still out there kicking ass because I read poetry and I write poetry. I write poems about sex and sports and video games and comic book conventions, because poetry can be about anything. There's a terrible misconception in the world today that poetry is only worth reading if it deals with profound subjects like love and war and death. Poetry can be fun, though, too. Ron Koertge has a collection that's all about the hilariously broken lives fairy tale characters lead after their adventures are over. Sherman Alexei routinely makes me laugh, even when he's being completely serious. ("'Listen,' / I could have told her. 'I don't give a shit / about Walden.") Michael Cirelli actually knows what rap is. Erin Belieu is just as comfortable writing about football as nostalgia over a sex doll. This stuff is out there, and it's good, but we don't always know where to look.

When the man behind the counter said, “You pay
by the orifice,” what could we do but purchase them all?

Ah, Sandy, you were clearly the deluxe doll, modish and pert
in your plastic nurse whites, official hostess to our halcyon days,

—from: "Of the Poet’s Youth" by Erin Belieu

That's where we come in. LitReactor has been building up a heavy head of steam in the realms of fiction, non-fiction, and memoir discourse, but this year we're going to get into some great contemporary poetry, too. We'll be profiling small presses, who know the most about what's going on in poetry today. We'll be reviewing new collections by some of our favorite poets, keeping you more up to date with the world of verse than you probably ever expected to be. Most excitingly, though—at least for me, but hopefully for you, too—we'll be discussing the ins and outs of poetry, all the stuff that makes poetry compelling and unique and relevant. Think of it as a long-term correspondence course in contemporary verse, but fun and for free.

What are your thoughts on poetry? What are some of the books you've read recently that give you hope for its future? Feel free to throw out some comments or suggestions for future topics, or just to keep the conversation going as we all lace up our literary hiking boots and begin this trek to the Land of Poetry. Next month class will be in session with "Poetry Fun-0-1: Love Poems," so get those hearts out on those sleeves, dust off your rhyming dictionary, and prepare for a poetical year!

About the author

Brian McGackin is the author of BROETRY (Quirk Books, 2011). He has a BA from Emerson College in Something Completely Unrelated To His Life Right Now, and a Masters in Poetry from USC. He enjoys Guinness, comic books, and Bruce Willis movies.

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