So off and on I’ve been getting emails from aspiring young poets. They all suffer from the same flaws—inexperience, mawkish sentimentality, guileless clichés, the urge to tell rather than to show, and a lack of humility. I was no different at that age—and that’s a good thing. A certain arrogance, impatient, defiant self-confidence, and heedlessness is good and necessary when you’re young. For the record, I’m no less self-confident now, but perspective and a sense of humor have done wonders for my other and sundry sins. Age, ideally, has that effect on us.
I remember being furious with criticism of my poetry.
My first reaction was always to conclude that my critic was a damned fool and couldn’t recognize genius if their lives depended on it. I then consoled myself with the indisputable analogy that I, like Keats and Beethoven, was misunderstood in my own time. (With maturity, I’ve limited my analogy to Keats.) But that kind of youthful anger and indignation is also a good thing if the poet channels it. After a suitable period of rage, I would recognize the kernel of truth in the criticism (and the only thing worse than being criticized is being correctly criticized). The good kind of rage is the kind that makes you determined never to be criticized like that again. That’s the way to improve.
As I’ve written before, the most devastating and corrective piece of criticism I ever received was from Thomas Lux, who said of my youthful poetry: “There’s a difference between writing poetry and writing poetically.” And in the interest of full disclosure, this is the poem that prompted the comment:
Gone are the colorful breezes of summer
Tussling the green grasses thick in the field;
Gone is the orchard’s ample verdure
And the cherry-red ripeness of its yield;
Gone are the pinks of the water Lilly
Adorning the lake’s azure reflection;
Gone the deep lucence of a turquoise sea—
Wistful memories to ease dejection.
··Yellowed are the grasses and brown the trees
Black are the fields and white the drifting snow;
Frosted are the lakes and ice-blue the seas,
Grey are the clouds and metallic their glow.
··The shadings are stark on a winter’s day
··Though budding colors are never far away.
I have a hand-written book full of poems like these—and worse.
At that age Keats was already writing his first masterpieces. I was falling behind. But it’s a lesson every young poet needs to learn—and until they do the advice is like a Zen Koan. What does that even mean? There are other pieces of advice that are like that, one that I just offered a correspondent: “The art of writing about yourself is to not write about yourself.” There’s a lot of experience that goes behind that koan, but the day it makes sense it will strike like satori.
But the coolest thing about the poetry I’ve been getting are the rhymes and rhythms of hip hop. Given the moribund ubiquity of free verse, it’s good to see literary poets once again playing with language. But here’s the challenge: How to combine the rhymes and rhythms of hip hop (where beat and performance drive language and content), with literary poetry in which content shapes the rhyme and rhythm? And how will young poets combine the dense figurative language of literary poetry with the direct and explicit momentum of a hip hop lyric? I hope that some among the youngest generation take it on. He or she will have to have a foot in both worlds, in Eminem and Shakespeare.
I see the potential. We just need a poet with the arrogance, impatience, self-confidence, heedlessness and genius to take it on.
upinVermont | January 22nd 2019