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!

Brian McGackin

Column by Brian McGackin

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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postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words January 16, 2014 - 3:43pm

I stumbled into some poetry slam events recently, and although some of it wasn't all that, overall it was pretty outstanding stuff. I'm actually surprised at how lively the world of poetry is in Ottawa, which is a city that generally doesn't get art of any kind unless it's a bestseller, blockbuster, or investment.

I haven't read much poetry since university, but recently came across Coaltown Jesus by Ron Koertge. Very entertaining stuff. The more playful poetry is, the more I enjoy it.

Also, some of Michael Ondaatje's stuff is entertaining. There's A Trick with A Knife I'm Learning to Do and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid are two of his collections (maybe his only ones? Pre-the English Patient at any rate)

Sanbai's picture
Sanbai from the Midwest is reading The War of Art January 16, 2014 - 7:57pm

I really liked Shel Silverstein as a kid...does that make me a philistine? Heh heh heh.

Percy Dlamini's picture
Percy Dlamini from South Africa is reading Everything is Illuminated, The Time Traveler's Wife, The Shadow of The Wind January 17, 2014 - 12:19pm

I used to dish out poetry like crazy in my mid-to-late teens. now I struggle... and consuming poetry feels like a drag.

Brian McGackin's picture
Brian McGackin from NJ/LA is reading Between the World and Me January 17, 2014 - 3:00pm

Postpomo: Ron Koertge is great. I hadn't heard of him before I did the BookShot for The Ogre's Wife, but I want all of his other books now.

Sanbai: Shel Silverstein was the absolutely best at what he did. His poems were highly inventive, and his drawing abilities were incredible, so I give him all the credit in the world.

Percy: I totally feel you, which is why I've started this column, to get people back into poetry that might not know where to look. It's really difficult to walk into a bookstore or library and pick a random book of poetry, so it's a challenge to find good work that's in your tastes. Poetry collection reviews aren't nearly as ubiquitous as fiction and non-fiction reviews, even on sites like Goodreads.

Thanks for commenting! I hope you enjoy next month's column!

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast January 19, 2014 - 3:10am

"Ron Koertge is great. I hadn't heard of him before I did the BookShot for The Ogre's Wife, but I want all of his other books now."

That comment makes me very happy Brian, because that is exactly what BookShots is all about. Job done.

It's amazing when you think about how poetry is taught in schools - a concerted attempt to kill our interest in it forever - that there's anyone out there who still enjoys it as a adult. But we do, which says to me that it must be somehow fundamental to our psyche. And when poetry connects it does so like nothing else, witness the HUGE popularity of 'Love and Misadventure' on GoodReads and Tumblr. Which jibs neatly with the subject of your next column. Looking forward to it.


OtterMan's picture
OtterMan from New Jersey, near Philadelphia USA is reading Ringworlds Children January 21, 2014 - 5:51am

I haven't read a lot of poetry, I do write some when the mood strikes. Mostly a kind of 'flash poetry' based on something that catches my eye while out and about. I've often thought if someone wanted to publish a collection of bad poetry I could make some significant contributions. Would love to learn more about the ins and outs of the real thing.

AnnieNeugebauer's picture
AnnieNeugebauer from Texas is reading Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 5 January 24, 2014 - 3:37pm

Fantastic idea. I am all for demystifying poetry (I'm a poet too), and I can't wait to see where you take us!

Charles Scott's picture
Charles Scott from Kansas City is reading Damned February 15, 2014 - 10:30am

There's a lot of good stuff coming out of Kansas City. Check out Spartan Press https://www.facebook.com/pages/Spartan-Press/572290779485051. One of my favorites is Jason Ryberg http://jasonryberg.blogspot.com/. Check out Prosperos Books in Kansas City along with this montage from a reading there. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cxTEiew31nE

Of course, I wouldn't mind if you checked out my scribbles. http://chuckscott.blogspot.com/


Poetry, as with Punk, is alive and well. There are taking multi vitimins to survive.