The old saying goes, “Wait long enough, and it’ll come back into fashion.” Usually, people say this about clothes and styles of different eras. But I’ve been at the writing game now long enough to notice that the same is true of literary aesthetics, especially in poetry. Presently, prose poetry and invented form/free verse hybrids seem to rule the roost, but I predict that this trend, too, will pass, and eventually, come back around.
Not too many years ago, formalism was having a rebirth of sorts. Sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, and rondeaus were thrust from the depths of the poetry closet back into the limelight. Poets who’d previously identified as avant-garde were dusting off rhyme schemes and meters from the (gasp of dread) canon, that collection of authors so frequently lambasted for being too white, too male, too old, too…well, you get the picture. Their poetic choices were suddenly cool again, and poetry sounded something like it did in past centuries. The tweed jacket with elbow patches had emerged from a long hibernation, to use a metaphor.
Now poetry seems unsure of itself again — the aesthetic dominating pages of literary magazines is, for lack of a better label, no aesthetic at all. In several cases, there are words thrown onto a page with little regard for the reader. Many modern poems read like an inside joke that only the writer gets, and it is precisely this kind of cliquish snobbery that pushed the masses away from poems in the first place. Yes, people expect to read more deeply when they encounter poetry, but that doesn’t mean they should need an X-ray or an MRI of the poem to “get” it. Let’s provide something enjoyable for the first read as well as the second, third, or twenty-third.
Sometimes this brand of exclusivity is unintentional: Poets want to show how much they know rather than communicate a truth, a story, or a moment. The result of this “look at my knowledge” approach becomes overly philosophical, solipsistic slop that reads like something out of a dust-covered textbook in the farthest reaches of an unfrequented library. Candidly, nobody cares about self-important perspectives on the nature of life. We’re all living it, after all, and one person’s take may be appropriate for nonfiction or a driveway conversation, but it isn’t necessarily the stuff of engaging poetry. Give us instead those unforgettable images, that remarkable event, the everyday juxtapositions that fit only into a highly specialized, concise genre.
Lest the audience think I’m painting with too broad a brush here, let me say that there are plenty of splendid modern poets. Most recently, I’ve had the joy of reviewing books by Virginia Konchan and Rachel Custer, both of whom do a phenomenal job combining complex ideas with relatable language. They are neither too accessible nor too abstruse. They clearly understand the fine balance that a skilled poet must learn to strike. And despite using allusions that only a certain demographic might immediately understand, both poets supplement their unique vernacular with universal notions and sensations that are applicable to humanity at large. I appreciate that, and I’m sure other readers will, too.
I know some graduate assistant inside a prestigious MFA program may read this and think that I’m just a curmudgeon stuck in my ways, unwilling to accommodate new methods of doing. Maybe I’ve gotten resentful because my aesthetic isn’t the one that is presently popular. But the sad truth is, a good number of people will totally bypass this blog post because its title used the word “poetry,” and they’ve come to believe that they aren’t welcome when that genre is mentioned. They’re mentally wearing a plain blue oxford cloth shirt, and poetry is velour — uncomfortable, untrustworthy, and weirdly obsolete. Let me assure you, reader, that some poetry won’t rub you that way. I beg you to try on the generous, soft t-shirt provided by poets like those mentioned above. You may find that the dresser drawers of literature contain some suitable garments, even if they seem odd at first.