Saturday, March 1, 2008
How Now, Brown Cow: Poetry’s Place in Our World
Jayne Jaudon Ferrer
I suspect the average person rarely thinks about poetry. I, on the other hand, consider it daily. I’m either reading it, writing it, pondering its place in the universe (limited!) or figuring how out I can get someone excited about it—or to, at least, give it a chance.
I didn’t start out to be a poet—though, admittedly, I was drawn to that genre from my earliest days. Is that because my kindergarten teacher routinely exposed us to a steady diet of childhood classics such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Swing” and the sadly anonymous “Three Little Kittens?” Because the flow and repetition of nursery rhymes have such natural appeal to the early verbal and auditory development of children? Because I was blessed to come from a family that celebrated reading and had ready access to an abundance of books and records? Possibly, I was just a strange little girl; I did, after all, read the dictionary for fun.
My initial passion for writing was channeled into short stories. I wrote the occasional poem, but most of my time in elementary and middle school was spent writing stories of adventure, science fiction, and romance—most featuring fifteen-year-old heroines which, for some reason, I felt was the most glamorous age one could possibly be. In the spring of the ninth grade, however, my English teacher assigned a poetry project which lit a fire in me that burns brightly to this day. The assignment was to select, explain, and illustrate twenty or so poems in a notebook. How I wish I had that notebook today! I remember not one detail about the poems I chose, and I long to know if the poets I love now were ones I discovered during that project. In any case, by the time my notebook was finished, I was completely enamored, and I spent all my high school years wallowing in the works of one poet after another while writing voluminous amounts of flowery, angst-ridden, teenage drivel. I spent my junior and senior year trying to convince my Honors English instructor that Rod McKuen was every bit as gifted as Lord Byron (and made a lot more money!) and, by the time I graduated, had become a serious devotee of that art form.
In college, my own drivel matured and improved. I began submitting to contests and magazines and was rewarded with awards and publication. I reveled in writing workshops and intensive study of poetic forms. On a liberal arts college campus, one can find poetry fans fairly easily; not till I got out in the real world did I realize what an uphill battle I faced in pushing poetry to the masses. Promoting porn would have been easier—and a whole lot more lucrative. I put my passion aside to focus on something that paid the bills—advertising copywriting (which bears some similarity to poetry). And then, in a quirky twist of fate, I got the chance to publish a book of poetry—by a major New York publisher, no less! And then I published another. And another, and another. Because most big publishers—and, let’s face it, most readers—treat poetry as if it were parsnips in a box of popsicles—I pose no threat to John Grisham. But because my poetry ended up in some pretty prominent hands, I bypassed the selling chapbooks one by one/struggling for recognition and distribution phase typical of most poets, which means the academic world disdains me. I am, God help me, a “commercial” poet—a rare species right up there with the Yangtze River Dolphin. I love my art, but I see nothing wrong with making money at it. In fact, if I’m not making money at it, it’s a bit hard to justify doing it on an ongoing basis. I never expect to get rich writing poetry, but there’s certainly no honor in poverty or obscurity, so bah!humbug! to all those snobs who sneered at Maya Angelou when she sold out to Hallmark. That was a red letter day for poetry, and the world is a better place for having Maya’s words in the racks at Wal-Mart.
Here’s the other problem with poetry: besides the fact that nobody reads it, waaaay too many people write bad versions of it. Unfortunately, like parenthood, writing poetry doesn’t require a license. The chief motivation for becoming a poet seems to be a) a hopelessly romantic view of the world; b) a deep desire to tell the world to $&*!!*# off, c) the need for a cheap, yet seemingly heartfelt, gift; or d) a classroom assignment that can no longer be avoided. I have no problem with those last two, but there’s enough cheesy, angry poetry in the world to last several lifetimes. When I speak to students—the absolute best perk of being a published author, by the way—the number one rule I lay down is “DON’T BE BORING!” If you can’t create something worth reading, then you should not be writing.
Now before anyone fires off a scathing e-mail indictment of this harsh pronouncement, let me clarify that if you are writing for your own pleasure, or to share or leave behind your poetic thoughts and impressions with your family, then you should feel free to pour out heart and soul to said heart’s content (though, even then, I suspect your recipients would appreciate proper grammar, a modicum of fresh perspective, and a minimum of bad rhyme!). That kind of poetry is a verse of a different color, if you will. But if you intend your words to wind up in front of an editor’s face, you had better make sure certain adjectives—banal, bland, and boring come most immediately to mind—don’t wind up in his brain as he reads.
Poetry’s a tough sell, folks; give it all you’ve got before you put it out there in the trenches. Your country will thank you…if they ever get around to reading it.
Jayne Jaudon Ferrer is a poet and speaker who lives in Greenville, SC. To receive her “Scintillating Springtime Parade of Poetry,” a 30-day celebration of National Poetry Month, visit www.jaynejaudonferrer.com or send an e-mail with the word “Poetry Parade” in the subject line to firstname.lastname@example.org.