Here’s a thing I’m occasionally forced to admit: I am a snob.
This is, perhaps, unsurprising to some of you who have met me in real life. I suffer from that well-known disease, Resting Bitch Face Syndrome. Apologies to my parents, but it’s a genetic condition. Several people have told me that they thought I hated them when they first encountered me, because my default facial expression makes me look like I’m pooh-poohing everyone and everything around me. The truth is that I am only doing this about 25 percent of the time.
When I am, it tends to be because people are in the process of telling me that they are in the midst of reading the Fifty Shades of Grey series, anything by Nicholas Sparks (the king of white people almost kissing), or the latest Kardashian publication. This is funny because I’ve gone on record several times as saying that I believe people should read anything that appeals to them rather than following some prescribed list, as well as because I am nothing if not a fan of the trashy romance novel (mainly of the Regency persuasion).
But when I get to an open mic event and someone reads their maudlin, poorly-rhymed, unlearned poetry that was influenced by Billy Collins or a spirit journey to the desert or the really awful time they had with addiction/cancer/dying pets, I judge the writer and then I tune out their words. It’s a horrible way to act as an audience member, and I know this because I’ve been on the wrong side of a less-than-enthusiastic crowd in the past.
There’s something in me, though, that cannot accept hearing a piece written in such a way. I’m all for artistic expression, especially as a healing tool. Simply committing words to the page, however, does not make it poetry, nor does it make the thing fit for public consumption.
This is a sort of long-winded way of saying that we all need to be careful about what we put out into the world. No matter how heartfelt your efforts, you cannot create something worthwhile by running the poetry playbook (rhyme, meter, alliteration, and so on) and applying it to whatever topic springs to mind. That’s what a diary is for. Even the so-called “confessional poets” (Lowell, Sexton, Plath, and their contemporaries) were able to turn their psychic wounds into something better for themselves and their readers and connect with them without falling completely into the self-obsession trap or--more importantly--the sentimental trap. Sentimental verse is great for greeting cards. It’s not useful in a poetry collection.
Lest I should sound like a complete jerk, I readily admit that I struggle with this in my own writing. I’m absolutely self-centered when it comes to producing poetry. I’ve never written a single poem that wasn’t at least partly about me and my hang-ups. But I want to bridge that gap between my interior life and my reader’s sensibilities, and so I work hard to make it happen. This isn’t my way of tooting my own horn; it’s simply my way of encouraging others to take a similar approach in order to avoid alienating their audience with a simplistic rhyme scheme and platitudes.
Of course, I’m likely judging everyone too harshly, given the quality--or lack thereof--of my own poetry, and for that I apologize. But as someone who loves the written word, I want to read and hear the best work possible, and I hope this will nudge some authors in a more polished direction.