I read a lot of poetry, and it is little surprise that much of it is bad. This is not to say that there are not any good poets around, but rather that the amount of bad poetry ridiculously outnumbers the good poetry that exists. I have read a great many books that argue that more people write poetry than read poetry, and there is good reason for this, and that is the way that good poetry is so rare, and that even many of the people who write bad poetry do not always appreciate reading it from others. It’s time we had a talk about this, because it is a fascinating conversation that relates to a lot of areas that are of interest to me as a writer and may interest those of you who happen upon this blog and find it worth reading. So let’s go.
I have written poetry since I was a kid, and I have tended to think at least that some of my poems are good. I started out mostly writing limericks and during my teenage years I wrote a lot of song lyrics, some historical epics, a lot of bad love poetry, and even plenty of sonnets, haiku/tanka, and blank verse efforts. As an adult my writing has been shorter and more related to inspiration in visiting ruins or beautiful creation, or reflecting upon memory and personal relationships or something of that nature. I have always written a great deal about death as well as creation, and more than most poets I seem to have always been interested in reading the poems of others and sometimes engaging in conversations with them. This includes poets I am very fond of (like William Stafford, for example), as well as poets whose work I am not as fond of (like Gerard Manley Hopkins). Sometimes reading the poems of others inspires me to write poems. At other times it merely leads me to think about poetry and about why people write the poems that they do.
At its best, poetry is conversation. Sometimes this conversation is internal, as when someone seeks to leave a record of their own reflections about life and love, or death and isolation. Sometimes the conversation is with God, in rapturous odes about creation and its beauties as well as appreciation for the lives that we have been given and the talents we have been given and have developed to express that gratitude. At other times, a poem can be a literal part of a conversation with someone else. This is especially true, for example, when songwriters converse with each other about their relationships (and their demises) through songs that provide one’s perspective and leave the listener to figure out where the truth lies. Sometimes the conversation is between people and other writers of the past and present, whether that conversation deals with the subject matter other poets deal with, or with the style and approach that others have to poems, or whether it seeks to take a line from a previous work and to use that as a takeoff to one’s own expression.
Yet although the potential for good poetry exists, there is still a lot of bad poetry that exists. Why is this so? Part of the problem is that the sheer large number of writing or creativity of any kind ensures that a great deal of it will be bad. The immense amount of scope that people have to express themselves ensures that a great many of the expressions that people will have are simply not very good, and are in fact quite banal and self-absorbed and not as interesting as the writer things. So long as a writer writes for self-expression and/or a small and appreciative audience of friends and family, this is no great problem, for they will be able to appreciate the sentiments and will be inclined to be kind. It is a problem when such works are given awards and are assigned for reading in schools and are published in magazines and collections, because it encourages people who have no business reaching a wider market to seek publishing based on their identity and political views and not on their skill at writing (which is frequently nearly nonexistent).
There has always been a lot of bad poetry. Indeed, in the past there was probably a great deal more of it, because poetry was more frequently read and therefore more frequently imitated. And much of the imitation was probably not very good. To be sure, not very much of the bad poetry from the past has survived–Gerard Manley Hopkins is a rare exception here. But the sheer amount of poetry that was created in the past must be appreciated, because the Bible, for one, demonstrates the way that even a fairly ordinary young woman in Mary or Hannah could create moving and lasting poetry simply by virtue of being part of a poetic tradition that understood Hebrew poetry and its forms. This suggests that there is a way to writing better poetry, and that is learning to appreciate good poetry from the past, which will give us better models as we discipline our habits of creating poetry so that we can make better poetry. There is plenty of good poetry that survives. Why not appreciate it, and let its influence help us to improve our own self-expression? If we are going to express ourselves anyway, as seems pretty likely, why not do a better job of at least ensuring that we have familiarity and knowledge of good ways of doing so?