We can read poetry and allow language to be difficult, back away when it’s too hard, and come back later to try again. Or ask why it’s so difficult and wait; maybe waiting on the answer is itself an answer. Or accept the poem’s silence as its only way of speaking. There are surprises and rewards in both.
From panel discussions on publishing 101 to writing the long poem to American poets living and working abroad, Poets Forum, an annual event hosted by the Academy of American Poets, dedicates two full days to topics related to contemporary poetry, gathering distinguished poets in one place in New York City. It’s an affair the academy works hard to produce and one the national poetry community looks forward to attending.
On Saturday, October 26, academy chancellors Claudia Rankine (Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Graywolf) and Marilyn Hacker (Names, Norton), in “Form: Inspiration and Experimentation,” talked about creating poetry in terms of “making an event” and “working with the unseen.” For Rankine, using multimedia, specifically film, facilitates vision. National Book Award winner Hacker sharpened the conversation with advice for all writers—“do your work.” She then explored the edges of Hayden Carruth’s “The Sleeping Beauty,” a poem that for her exemplifies the combination of invention (Carruth employed 124 sonnet-like stanzas in the form of what he called paragraphs), content (a blend of mythic and modern language), and experimentation. Unfortunately, their exchanges drifted without a clear focus, and the poets themselves appeared out of sync with each other, their subject, and the audience. I wondered if the discussion was helpful to the students, academics, poets, and lovers of poetry present. Were they inspired to write? Was that the goal?
From this experience the hour felt long, and I wasn’t any closer to a specific poem or the concept of the poem. In fact, I felt unusually distant from poetry. It had become problematic not because it was too hard to understand, but because it wasn’t present in specific examples and the poets weren’t offering clear advice.
For readers who find themselves saying I don’t understand poetry, it’s over my head, or I’m not smart enough, etc., one way to approach the poem is to think of the interaction with language as being similar to relationships between people; both require an amount of work, and just as love is the greatest reward we can receive in relationships, the reward of a great poem is seeing the world anew.