To some, the word conjures images of inspiring speeches made by Robin Williams in The Dead Poet’s Society. To other – dare I say a much larger number? Yes, I dare – it calls to mind incomprehensible readings by pretentious twits (or should that word have an “a” in it?) in smoky bars in front of six (never more) equally pretentious twits.
As a writer, I fall somewhere in between. While I’m well aware that postmodern poetry often descends into the deepest realms of obtuse navel-gazing and its practitioners include many people who might stop speaking to you if you inadvertently did something as accessible as rhyme the ends of two lines (or use recognizable meter, god forbid), I also have a soft spot for Poe’s poetry among others.
I’ve even invited guest posters here to discuss speculative poetry, which, as far as I can tell, hasn’t fallen prey to the postmodenists yet.
Every once in a while, though, it’s nice to conect with the greatest hits of the past. Back in 1996, my wife was given a volume entitled The Best Loved Poems of the American People as a prize in school (she went to a bilingual school). When I discovered that she owned this item, I tossed it into my TBR pile and eventually, it cycled to the top.
This is exactly the kind of volume that, if it were published today would a) sell millions of copies and b) come under severe critical fire for all sorts of reasons.
There’s many reasons for this one getting lambasted. From a purely academic point of view, the poems are in forms and meters that have fallen out of favor. Blank verse and incomprehensibility rule the roost.
The second reason they would get themselves attacked is that in many if not all cases, these works reflect their times. They don’t address or even care about diversity or race or even, really, politics of any kind. When attacking the big issues of life, they leave these considerations aside. Poetry has become a political vehicle in many cases, and critics would not allow someone to backslide on this “progress”.
The final criticism, and perhaps the only valid one is that the poems themselves have become clichéd, victims of their own success.
That’s true. And there’s a good reason for it: they’ve been quoted, referred to and have brought happiness, comfort and solace to countless generations. The word “Loved” in the book’s title is spectacularly apt.
I thought the book would be a slog, but it wasn’t. It was a trip down memory lane and a reminder that accessible, non-angry oetry isn’t a crime, and that the great human emotions are prety much the same today as they were 150 years ago, no matter how many shrill voices try to tell us that anything from that age must necessarily be racist (or whatever) and therefore no longer valuable.
It is a book to dip into as opposed to reading straight through, of course, but even reading as a single exercise, I enjoyed it enormously. I truly wonder whether any of today’s poetry will be read a century hence. I seriously doubt it.
There’s a reason these values (and these words) have a lasting effect and anyone reading these verses will remember why. In such a cynical age, perhaps it’s a good idea to reflect on more simple things every so often. I know I enjoyed it.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer who has published exactly one poem in his life. Perhaps that doesn’t make him the greatest expert on poetry, but his novels are pretty good. Outside, for example, is about what happens when humans escape the harshness of reality to live in simulated worlds.