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Editor’s note: The Chicago poetry scene is legendary. This town is the birth of the slam, the home of POETRY magazine, and stomping grounds of some of the most talented poets in the nation. For this reason, we’ve asked Encyclopedia Show founder Robb Telfer to serve as our Poetry Correspondent.
It usually starts with some horrible high-school teacher. This teacher, ruined by a life of having to regularly TALK to young people, has sucked all the electricity out of the medium by teaching only the work of long dead white men and by treating the poem as if it’s an Easter egg hunt of literary device. When the experience is through, everyone feels dirty, and like most of my high-school memories, it requires years of intense therapy to scrub the soul clean again.
Or maybe it’s later in life. Some blind date has persuaded you to go to a poetry slam. On the stage you see people shouting horrifying personal and global traumas with lines like “And I wonder / if George Bush was a woman / would he still let his Dick / do most of his thinking?” A valid question, but it is not the type of ambience that leads to a second date.
So why is poetry such a magnet for suck? Perhaps it is something inherent to the genre, which therefore dooms the practice to wherever the Macarena went. Let’s try to muster a definition then, despite Samuel Johnson’s famous warning, “To circumscribe poetry by a definition will only show the definer to be a real asshole for trying.”
I once asked a room of high-school kids to define poetry, and everyone just stared at me. One kid said the dictionary’s definition was “not prose.” In fact, many like to describe it by what it’s not. National Book Award finalist Patricia Smith says it’s “everything sentences can’t say.” Another great poet, Karen Finneyfrock, says it’s “pictures made out of words.” These definitions, while true, still don’t get the cage around the tiger. Other poets and scholars and dictionaries have insanely disparate, frequently contradictory meanings. I don’t know how to make people hate poetry less if society can’t even agree on what it is.
I asked my 90-year-old grandmother, a member of the Joliet Sports Hall of Fame, why everyone hates poetry, and she said, “Not like it? Many don’t understand it. Some think it’s sissy,” which is lovely, and I think highlights two important hurdles for the genre: It’s too complicated for the uninitiated and it’s only enjoyable to spindly-armed cry-wheezers like myself. Poet Mark Strand once said in an interview that he couldn’t write poetry in public: “Who would understand a man of my age writing reams of poetry on a train, if they looked over my shoulder? I would be perceived as an overly emotional person.” Grandma was right: Mark Strand is a pussy.
I have a suspicion that poetry is so hard to define by those who are “on the inside” because of one important characteristic: magic. Poetry that works, like any good art, kick-starts your emotions, which can only be accomplished by a magical tension and release in the reader/listener’s brain. However, because poetry is so intimate and requires a commitment from the audience that says, “I don’t care if Robb’s grandma thinks I’m a pussy, I’m gonna read this anyway!” we develop a sense of ownership. We don’t want to ruin the trick. If we define poetry, if we let people in on OUR magic, then the party’s ruined. All our charms’ll be o’erthrown n’ shit.
What is poetry? A friend once said it’s, “like the Supreme Court’s old definition of hard-core pornography: I know it when I see it.” And like porn, perhaps many more people consume poetry than are willing to publicly admit. Poet, playwright and MC Idris Goodwin agrees, “Actually, everybody loves poetry. They’re listening to poetry on their iPods. They spout poetry on the basketball court. They watch poetry on their television. A lot of people don’t realize that poetry is all around them. Poetry is the root of all forms of non-literal expression. But most people don’t think about it this way.” That seems closer to the meaning of it, and more like an embrace than a shove.