Even among those who read and write verse—sometimes especially among those who do—the hatred of poetry thrives.
Indeed, this sentiment flares up even among celebrated poets. For example, in his little 2016 volume entitled “The Hatred of Poetry”, Ben Lerner confesses to it in detail, with his characteristic style and wit.
Like most people, I too avoid verse. Mostly. True, at points in my youth I was a reader of poems, and a few years ago I was even obsessed with writing them. But nowadays if, say, I'm thumbing through a magazine and come across a poem, I’m likely to sigh and just turn the page.
Perhaps for some members of this website such a response is familiar. This brief piece aims to explore it.
There are three components, all interrelated, that weave through most poetry. They are not all present in every poem, but usually so. These elements constitute the short list of the form's virtues, but unfortunately, also its vices. And therein lies the rub.
First, and most crucial to my way of thinking, is what might be called “density” or perhaps “compression”. That is, saying much with few words. It’s often the quality that delights us most about a poem. It allows us to form our own images, rather than having them spelled out for us.
Of course not all works employ it. Ancient epic poems, for example, are more likely to spell it all out, literally blow by blow. At the other end of the spectrum, the genre employing compression most compellingly—and fiercely—is haiku.
It’s difficult to construct a skillfully compressed image. But more to the point, it’s also difficult to digest. Compression is the first assault on the reader of a poem. It makes the going rough. You’ve got to slow way, way down, maybe read it all again. It’s a lot of work.
The second, related element is metaphor, figurative language. I say related because metaphor is itself one way of achieving compression. But beyond its density, metaphor is more widely appreciated for its sheer inventiveness, its artistic agility.
Not, again, that all verse employs it. Bukowski, for example, is famed for his avoidance of metaphor. Like many others, I appreciate his plainspoken, perceptive cynicism. For a while. But a little while later his work begins to seem so . . . plainspoken. More like essay fragments than verse.
So it is possible to be nostalgic for metaphors. Nonetheless, when applied without judicious restraint—as often happens—they can also grow quickly wearisome. They then become just another reason for the strong aversion to verse.
The third element is rhythm. Another tricky subject. It’s impossible to specify exactly what poetic rhythm is. There are many versions, no universals. Except perhaps this one vague dictum: you know it when you see it. The beat just feels balanced or satisfying in some way, both within and between lines.
And usually—not always, especially among contemporary poets—it feels different than prose. Prose has its own pacing, to be sure, but the rhythm of verse is usually more pronounced.
This is not always a friendly thing. Even in the hands of a master, rhythm can become a noxious aspect of verse. For example, I view Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” as one of the great poetic works of world literature. But even I must admit that the ceaseless, back and forth swing of his rhythm can induce a kind of seasickness.
So where does this leave us?
Depending on how one feels at any given moment, these elements of verse can be either the sparkling facets of a gem, or three good reasons to turn the page.
Admirable artistry, or too much work.
Well what do we have here, or please, anything but poetry.