Rage, rage against the dying of the metaphor!
Mention the word "poetry" to the average human being and their eyes will roll so far back into their head they can probably watch their own synapses fire. I can't blame them. In average shlubby joe circles (as opposed to snobbish, erudite "MFA in creative writing and nothing to do with it" circles), the stuff that passes as poetry is usually comprised of endless sobbing ministrations for a lost boyfriend to return to the writer's oh-so-loving arms, diatribes on the horrors of capitalism and the monster that is the American government, angsty accounts of attempted suicide, self injury, and/or excessive alcohol consumption, or Hallmarkesque proverbs so full of peace, good will, and inspiration you can almost feel your ass pucker from the saccharine sweetness of it all.
come hither - back off
That ain't poetry.
No, I don't mean "that's bad poetry". I mean that ain't poetry at all. OK, yes, sometimes it's really bad poetry, but most of those horrid things are lucky to reach that high. The people who created those monsters thought, "Hey, I'm going to write a poem!" They then wrote stuff, called it poetry, and forced innocent bystanders to read it. They did nothing else. They didn't read poetry, they didn't study language, they didn't bother to find out what the difference is between metaphor and symbolism, and they sure in the hell didn't bother to write intelligibly. Poetry comes from the heart! It's instantaneous! Just add water and microwave!
So why isn't it poetry? Poetry is a craft as well as an art. It uses language in unique ways to build unique things. These unique things differ from other things made with language like essays and novels and grocery lists, and they differ in very specific ways. It's not just a matter of cutting up a block of random text into lines. There has to be compression - a lack of filler, repetition, non-relevant information to the theme and intent - as well as the use of unique and fresh imagery, figurative language such as metaphor, symbolism, simile, personification, comparative narratives, synecdoche, hyperbole, etc., attention to the interplay of sound and rhythm, understanding and manipulation of lines and linebreaks, attention to pacing and proportion, and so much more.
Oh sure, there are all kinds of oh-so-profound definitions of poetry (which are usually not so much definitions as an attempt by the proclaimer to rope off a piece of literary history for themselves by uttering something that sounds horribly intelligent, inspired, and quotable), and there are also many people (especially these days when all it takes to be an "artist" is to call yourself one) who say poetry is indefinable and entirely subjective, but I say bullshit. When you get down to the literal mechanics of poetic construction, the nuts and bolts of a poem's linguistic structure, as far as I'm concerned it's neither entirely subjective nor indefinable. Which is my subjective opinion. So there. In my view, a poem is a piece of writing (or speech) that, using compressed, figurative language, builds unique patterns between objects, events, ideas, and people, connections that illuminate something greater about both the components within the pattern as well as the sum of the parts.
What do I mean by that? Here's what I mean: say you're walking home at night, cut through an alley, and see a homeless person fishing leftovers out of a garbage bin behind a fancy French restaurant. The sight suddenly illuminates in you the harshness in the disparity between rich and poor, how what's considered valuable and worthless depends entirely on perspective, blah blah and the kitchen sink. It's an epiphany and you get all misty-eyed and go volunteer at a shelter the next day. You also try to explain this powerful moment to your friends and family, who pat you on the hand and say, "There, there - isn't that lovely?" while praying you shut up soon. You tell them, "I had this epiphany about what's considered valuable and what's considered worthless and it's all in the eye of the beholder and ta da! Isn't that insightful?" They just stare blankly. So one night you take a chance and drag your best friend on a walk, cut through a back alley, and sure enough the same homeless guy is there, eating out of the garbage bin très française. Your friend watches, then gasps, "AH! I see! I get it! It has great meaning!" You're vindicated!
That's what a poem does: it doesn't tell listeners and readers about the results of these connections we make in our minds using our sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell as tools - it remakes them. It's the same reason you would rather watch The Remains of the Day than watch some guy stand in front of a camera and tell you about the self-destructive repression amongst servants in English manor houses.
OK, bad example - those two things rank at about the same level on the bleeding-eyes-dull scale.
You get the idea, though: it's far more interesting to vicariously experience something visceral, tangible, and specific that illuminates some great, powerful, and almighty thematic undertone than it is to listen to someone tell you what the great, powerful, and almighty thematic undertone actually is. That's why much of that stuff ain't poetry. The writers aren't building any patterns, aren't using any figurative language, and are basically just standing in front of a camera telling you about the self-destructive repression of servants in English manor houses.
Why poetry is regarded as excerpts from mentally unbalanced people's diaries, easily quotable and utterly empty inspirational proverbs, or manifestos from political anarchists baffles me. The fact that so many people think poetry involves some kind of metaphysical transformation that requires no skill or study - that just fucks me up completely. Do you think someone can just start typing in Word and magically write a Pulitzer-prize winning novel? Or land a journalist gig at the New York Times? If I sit down at a piano and play chopsticks, am I ready for Carnegie Hall? Look! I nailed two hunks of wood together! I'm a carpenter! Let me build you a wall unit!
While it may be ten kinds of fun to nail hunks of wood together for kicks, the people who put their books on your hunks of wood and subsequently die under an avalanche of literature likely don't feel the same way. And while it may give you all kinds of emotional release and therapeutic outlets, the shit you write and then call "poetry" reads like someone just trepanned your skull with a cordless drill. Fun to write, gouge-out-your-eyes-with-knitting-needles hell to read. Forget all those people who patted your hand and told you it was lovely. They lied. They were afraid of hurting your obviously unbalanced feelings. They hated it. Trust me.
Of course, it doesn't help poetry lovers at all in their attempts to convert the masses when poets, including those aimless MFA grads who try to impress their former teachers, build poems with so many obscure references a reader is obligated to possess advanced expertise in ancient languages, theology, philosophy, Greek mythology, Mayan basketweaving, dwarf-tossing, Sumatran monkey-hunting, and botany in order to understand them. (Yes, Geoffrey Hill, I'm talking about you.) Neither does it help when those rebelling against this obscurity write poems as composed by Dick and Jane, with big neon signs and flashing arrows incorporated therein to guide a reader through said poem just in case the reader was recently lobotomised. (Yes, Billy Collins, I'm talking about you.)
Problem is, nobody ever learns about poetry anymore, not unless they decide to get specialised education and study it in university (because, you know, they're independently wealthy and don't need to get an actual job later or anything - or they're completely insane). So how the hell is a person supposed to know the difference between a Maya Angelou and a Charles Bukowski and a Geoffrey Hill and a Billy Collins and a Dylan Thomas? That would be no different from someone showing me a stack of formulas on blackboards. I wouldn't be able to tell you which one was Einstein's and which one was the schizophrenic's attempt to decode the messages being beamed into his head. Why? Because I learned jack shit about advanced physics. How the fuck do I know?
Nice thing about poetry is, it's made with language. Unlike advanced physics, people use language every day of their lives. We like language. Language is funky cool. It helps us do neat things like, oh, communicate and stuff. Comes in handy making doctor's appointments. Gets us hot and bothered coming out of our lover's mouth. Generally speaking, most of the tools used to make a poem, we already know. We just don't know we know.
Poetry rocks. Why does poetry rock? Because it plays with language like a kid plays with Silly Putty. Because it's a Chinese puzzle of words, and who doesn't like puzzles?
OK, fine - you may not like poetry. Thing is, you probably don't know whether you do or not, because I guarantee that the majority of people reading this haven't read any actual poetry yet.
So read some. Get an anthology. Read a poem. Then read it again. Let it sink in. Let it melt on your tongue instead of gobbling it up and barely tasting it before you swallow. You can start slow with something like Garrison Keillor's Good Poems (not all of them are, but that's Garrison for you), or maybe Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times (again, a bit meh at times, but that's because I like meatier stuff). Or maybe you want to challenge yourself: get A Book of Luminous Things, The New Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, or the granddaddy of all anthologies, The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. That'll keep you busy for a year or so. Just skip Gertrude Stein if you know what's good for you.
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