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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Defining Poetry

Discovering new poetry can be like finding an agate on the windswept shores of Lake Superior. It’s a rare-euphoric moment.

A shiny little rock glimpse.
A contemplation of unique phrasing, the positioning of words.

Distinguished poet Billy Collins had the honor of being guest editor for The Best American Poetry 2006.





In his introduction, Collins describes what he feels makes great poetry.

What defines a really good poem?

** A poem should speak directly to the reader, keeping him or her always in mind. Kind of like doing radio programming. Your shows are only as strong as the audience who is listening in.

** A real voice is critical to poetry. Collins defines it precisely, "The recognizable sound of a human voice is always an inducement to continue. I prefer to act as an auditor rather than a witness to an act of literary alchemy." "Stay Human" as Micheal Franti sings it.

** Poems should provide direction. A word compass that points you toward imagination. A directed reading orientation as opposed to drifting on a raft w/out said paddle. Journey. Collins again, "Being oriented at the outset of a poem offers the promise of being pleasantly dis-oriented later as the poem moves into more complex territory where the waters are more strangely stirred.

** Because it’s so common, the hardest ones to avoid are poems of "self-expression." I once got into a good discussion about this in regards to the film Love Liza. I argued for self-expression over content (likely a mistake on my part). Here’s the dialogue:

angie19130: Be forewarned, if you disliked Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, you should avoid this movie like the plague. PSH is a great actor and I like a lot of films he is in, but this is a real stinker.

Harbostar: That's a bit harsh don't you think? Unfortunately, people deal with loss in tragic ways. Addictions are real. I agree that lack of character development and plot results in a thin movie. ***** stars

angie19130: I really don't thing I'm being too harsh. I have very definitive ideas about how addictions are portraited in film. I put this movie in the same category as Leaving Las Vegas. I see you liked that as well. Here's what the issue is for me. In both films the audience is introduced to the character after their addiction has already taken hold. You don't get to see their lives before. You don't get to see the characters recover in any way. This leaves me wondering what the filmmaker hoped to accomplish. Those at the beginnings of addiction can't identify with how they're on that path. Those in the painful stage of addiction are given no direction of hope. I just don't get the point the filmmaker is trying to make other than mucking around in the pain. Not something I respect. All that said, you're more than welcome to your opinion.

Harborstar: All good points you make. Sometimes I see film less about the message and more about self-expression. A film maker can do well just by capturing a character's current world w/out seeing the before or after. If we don't don't respect the cinematic world portraying suffering- especially with regard to doc's- I'm afraid were going to be a far to sentimental world. Of course, I'm leaving a discussion on this topic w/out looking at it from a Christian perspective. That's for another day. I think Hoffman did a wonderful job of potraying this character though.

angie19130: Hoffman's always great. There's no denying that. I get what you're saying about self expression, but I hate real downers when I see them. That's just me.


Collins goes on in great detail to define and illuminate good poetry,

"poems carry us further through a series of steps that lead- or ironically fail to lead- to some revelation, a notion or even an angle of vision that was not possible before that poem was written. The way of the poem takes us to a place that did not exist before the poem was written. A poem is a path of its own going and the only access to its ending. And besides the rhythm of the line, which sometimes can be scanned and identified, there is the less obvious rhythm of the whole poem, the pacing of its parts, the gradual release of its energy, its rhetorical pulsations."



Photo Credit: David Robert

Krista Benjamin’s poem Letter from My Ancestors is one such rare reading moment. Connecting past to present, Krista writes for the future generation…..


Letter from My Ancestors

We wouldn’t write this,
wouldn’t even think of it. We are working
people without time on our hands. In the old country,

we milk cows or deliver the mail or leave,
scattering to South Africa, Connecticut, Missouri,
and finally, California for the Gold Rush—

Aaron and Lena run the Yosemite campground, general
store, a section of the stagecoach line. Morris comes
later, after the earthquake, finds two irons

and a board in the rubble of San Francisco.
Plenty of prostitutes need their dresses pressed, enough
to earn him the cash to open a haberdashery and marry

Sadie—we all have stories, yes, but we’re not thinking
stories. We have work to do, and a dozen children. They’ll
go on to pound nails and write up deals, not musings.

We document transactions. Our diaries record
temperatures, landmarks, symptoms. We
do not write our dreams. We place another order,

make the next delivery, save the next
dollar, give another generation—you,
maybe—the luxury of time


to write about us.

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