As a child, my mother and grandparents read a good mixture of genres to me. About once a week, usually on Fridays, my mom made a special effort to expose me to poetry. Sometimes it came from the Childcraft series, a collection of gilt-spined hardcover books that were like thin encyclopedias of primary knowledge. Sometimes, it was the inimitable Dr. Seuss, with his nonsensical rhymes and his worlds of whimsy and fantasy. And then, there were the nights before bed that I was privileged enough to be exposed to the great Shel Silverstein, an author whose work had been slammed by public school districts throughout the south because of Shel’s past career choices (artist for Playboy, among them) and his shocking use of words like “butt” and “pee.”
The thing I really liked about Shel’s work is that, often, it would start with a simple premise (having to do the dishes, preparing to clean one’s room, etc.) and by the end, the poem had morphed into something totally unusual and unexpected. I find my own poetry doing this more and more these days. A poem will start with something pretty standard, but by the end, an entire other world or scenario will have emerged on the page.
At first, I was troubled by this occurrence, thinking that structure and form demanded I stick to the original idea and pursue it to its most logical and rational conclusion. I should persist, in other words, to do justice to my work’s inspirations. After letting the “distracted” works rest, though, I came back to them with fresh perspective. It was then I recognized that, even though the poem had taken the road less traveled somewhere along the way, it still held merit. Revision would still be necessary, but the original form — weirdness and all — warranted its own continued existence. Not unlike Shel’s digressions into crazy landscapes, my own poetry is sometimes fueled by what my fiction friends would call “the not-knowing.”
No doubt the Beats would approve of this editorial decision, reiterating their “first thought, best thought” mantra. Not every poem has to show up for work in a starched oxford shirt and presidential-looking tie. Still, I can’t help feeling that words without boundaries are somehow lost. Frost’s misgivings about free verse resonate even today in the minds of poets everywhere, mine included. I feel that certain limits and strictures make poetry stronger, and poems without rules, even self-imposed ones, often fail the test of relevance. Call me a “new formalist” if you will. Many of my peers disagree, asserting the wildness of words renders a poetic experience that is exclusive and unique. Too often such justifications provide fodder for “artists” who want to assign depth to drivel, however. “It’s not that I can’t write; it’s that I find meaning in error and ugliness,” they’ll say, as if ignorance plus garishness equals enlightenment. Rubbish.
Giving in to occasional rabbit-trails along a poem’s path may be acceptable, even artful. But when diversion turns to disruption, it’s time to get out the old poets’ toolbox and get to work. Accepting moments of Seussian whimsy and Silversteinish play can make work more human, and add an element of fun to otherwise serious poetry. It remains up to the poet, however, to know when and where those moments are beneficial. For today, I think I’ll do a few re-writes and see what happens. Wish me luck, respected reader.