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The problem with modern poetry

Discussion in 'Chit Chat' started by Gryphos, Feb 11, 2017.

  1. Gryphos

    Gryphos Auror

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    Warning: rant.

    I love poetry; I think it's amazing. Because I'm so damn extra, I've written down some of my favourite lines of poems and stuck them on the wall over my desk. I'm not some kind of poem connoisseur or anything (in fact, I'm not particularly well read at all), but I know what I like. I love the poignant statements of William Blake and the way Robert Browning's dramatic monologues ooze personality and characterisation, and I think that Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven exhibits some of the dopest rhythmical control I've ever seen.

    So yeah, I love a good poem, and for a while now I've been trying to get into more modern poetry. However, this forced me to come to something of an unfortunate realisation:

    IMHO, most modern poetry is shit.

    It really pains me to say this; I hate the idea of being an edgy hipster singing wishing for a return of the 'good old days', but I can't help it! I've tried to analyse why it is modern poetry hasn't connected with me, and I've come to the conclusion that the problem is that modern poetry (tends to) lack two important aspects: musicality and imagination.

    Originally, poems were performed to music, and while this tradition disappeared, it left a legacy of musicality to the art of poetry. Poems, as aesthetic objects, had pleasing rhythms, constructed mainly using rhyme and metre:

    I wonder do you feel today [A]
    As I have felt since, hand in hand,
    We sat down on the grass, to stray [A]
    In spirit better through the land,
    This morn of Rome and May? [A]
    (Robert Browning — Two in the Campagna)

    Beautiful. And yet, around the early 20th century, this lyricism began to wane in popularity as Modernist poets like T. S. Eliot and Mina Loy dedicated themselves to all but totally abandoning metre and rhyme (I'm not saying the Modernists were the first to write unmetred or unrhyming poems, but they did make it the norm). There have certainly been noteworthy poets since then who used rhyme (Philip Larkin, for instance), but in general, poems have lost focus on musicality.

    Now, I'm not saying that all poems need to rhyme or have metre. What I am saying is that good poems should. Because what these rhythmic devices vitally achieve is making the poem memorable. There's a reason why 'Tyger tyger, burning bright / In the forests of the night' is one of the most well-known lines of poetry, and why I've yet to meet a single person who can recite the first two lines of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land off the top of their head, despite that arguably being the more historically significant poem. To be effective, poems need to stick with the reader; the words themselves need to be pleasing to recite. It's the same logic that goes into advertisement jingles. Critics of metre and rhyme often argue that they constrict the creativity of the poet, and to this I vehemently disagree. In fact, I would argue that restrictions such as metrical and rhyming patterns prompt more creativity, since they force the poet to come up with new and interesting ways of saying what they want to say.

    Now, as for the second thing modern poetry tends to lack, imagination. This observation is harder for me to quantify or explain, but I just feel like there's a distinct lack of ... I'm not sure ... fantasy? Storytelling? Range of subject matter? Again, I can't really quantify it. But, where are the poems about a duke showing a portrait of his deceased wife, only to casually reveal that he was the one who had her killed (My Last Duchess)? Where are the poems about a grief-stricken widower being harassed by a raven (The Raven)? Where are the poems about discovering the ruins of an ancient statue and ruminating on the insignificance of great empires in the grand scheme of things (Ozymandias)? Where are the poems using the tiger as a symbolic representation of evil and questioning how a benevolent god could create such a fearsome creature (The Tyger)? You get the idea. Modern poetry is direct, which would be fine, if not done to the point of blandness. Nowhere is this more plainly exhibited than so-called poetry slams, where 95% of the poems consist of either self-indulgent commentary or preaching about identity politics. Now, I love me some interesting political discourse in poetry (pretty much everything William Blake wrote was hella political), and I'm of the opinion that art is inherently political in nature whether or not the author intends it. But when a poem literally just consists of a poet spouting rhetoric (in an obnoxious cadence — let's not forget that), I have to ask, what am I supposed to get from this? These same messages have been put forth countless times before far more eloquently. If you're going to say the same thing, at least try to say it in a new and interesting way.

    But yeah, sorry about the rant. This is just a topic I feel very strongly about. I hope I'm not the only one who feels this way, that poetry has lost what made it great. If anyone knows of any modern poets who do make good use of rhyme and metre, and use creative images to put forth interesting themes, please go ahead and point them out.
     
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  2. Thomas Laszlo

    Thomas Laszlo Sage

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    I believe this is more of a preference item. If you don't like free verse than Find a poet who rhymes. No offense, but I've for sure read a modern poet who using rhyming in metre, although I cannot name them off the stuff red cuff


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  3. I wouldn't generalize against all free verse poetry. One of the reasons I'm attracted to poetry is the great variety and freedom that is available both to read and to write. Some of my favorite poems are free verse or unrhyming. I do agree that the definition of poetry has gotten so slippery that it's almost meaningless. But what you seem to be saying is that "poetry has to be this kind of poetry to be good, and all poetry that isn't is not good" and I just don't find that to be true. I have very structured poems that I love; I have unstructured poems that I love.

    You say that good poems should have metre because they make the poem memorable. Are there not other ways to make a poem memorable? Must a poem be memorable to be good? Is the reader's ability to recite the lines of the poem indicative of its quality?

    I've tried to write structured poetry. I can't. I hate it, it's chafing and annoying and makes my brain bleed. Maybe I could, but I don't enjoy it. If I had to make things rhyme I would never write poetry. I know what word I want to use in almost every case and I would rather be writing and expressing my feelings and ideas than spending ten minutes buried in a thesaurus trying to find a word that isn't even the right one for what I'm trying to say. Is free verse less...intellectual? I don't know; I don't care either. I mostly write poetry for my own enjoyment.
     
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  4. I like free verse best.
     
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  5. Gryphos

    Gryphos Auror

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    This is a great question. Naturally, poems can be memorable based solely on their content, but I do still think that having a pleasant rhythm goes a long way to making words stick in a reader's mind. As for whether or not this is essential for a poem to be good? I wouldn't put it in such blanket terms, but on some level I do think that a lack of memorability can only have a detrimental effect on trying to convey messages with words (unless in a specific case the lack of memorability is itself thematically relevant). Pleasant rhythms encourage repeated readings, which lodge the poem in the reader's mind and in turn prompt them to delve further into the meaning behind those words.

    Different strokes for different folks, I suppose. Personally, I find trying to write free verse ... I dunno, suffocating? Like I'm in a vacuum with nothing to grab hold of, and at the end of it I feel unfulfilled since the object I've created lacks aesthetic pleasure. I prefer having a structure of some kind to guide me, another tool to manipulate to create meaning.
     
  6. Funny! In my english class we did a segment on poetry and I was suffocating until the teacher confirmed that we didn't have to use rhyming. One of my classmates was like "How do you do poetry without rhyming?! It's so hard!" I didn't understand at all.
     
  7. Gryphos

    Gryphos Auror

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    So I was in a bookshop the other day, trying desperately to find examples of contemporary poetry I like. I did find a long poem by this woman called Kate Tempest, 'Brand New Ancients' which examined modern life through the lens of classical gods. It was intended to be read aloud, but worked quite well on the page also, and overall, while it was a bit ham-fisted with its message at times, I did enjoy it well enough. Hurray!

    But while I was in the shop, I also came across this collection called 'Milk & Honey' by young up-and-comer Rupi Kaur. I'd heard some buzz about this, what with it being a major bestseller, and was interested to know what all the fuss is about. And my-oh-my, I discovered what can only be described as the epitome of everything I hate about contemporary poetry. Literally, it was like a distillation of everything I've described in the OP.

    First, the form:
    What form? The poems consisted almost entirely of simple sentences separated by line breaks, with no rhythm, no rhyme, and almost no creative language devices. There was also no capitalisation of letters, and only full stops for punctuation – however, I can actually understand this decision, because according to Kaur, it's meant to emulate her ancestral language, with has no capitals, etc. This is actually a pretty cool creative choice which I can appreciate, but it doesn't save the shit that was written.

    And the content:
    The collection is split into four sections, which I believe are The Hurting, The Loving, The Breaking and The Healing, and each one's poems deal with different themes etc. Cool. But the way these themes are delivered is just so goddamn boring. I mean, guys, did you know that being lonely sucks. Holy shit! I never realised that until I flicked through this book. And what about this: love can hurt sometimes. Bruh ... mind-blowing, innit. Seriously, though, there is not a single original thought in this book. Now, this isn't necessarily an issue; a poem can still express cliche sentiment if it does so in a unique, aesthetically pleasing way, but Kaur literally just says the message. The words in those pages are no more poetic than the stuff you'd read in a self-help book, and are probably a lot less helpful.

    So why this book is so popular, I have very little idea. I suppose it's just because it's relatable. The messages of the poems are simple, inoffensive, and easy to apply. I mean ... fine, good on you Rupi Kaur for that; the messages you're saying are genuinely alright. But the way you've decided to tell them doesn't make good poetry.

    Venting over.
     
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  8. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Ok, I searched for Milk & Honey on Amazon and was reading some lines from the preview.

    Yeah, it sucks.

    I'm somewhat in the same boat with you in thinking that a lot of modern poetry sucks bigly. But isolating why this is so is difficult, because there are varying approaches and so "modern poetry" is a big tent and different approaches can suck for different reasons.

    I'm as likely to love great free verse as great metrical poetry. I spent years commingling online with some formalists, and I can say with certainty that simplistic formalist approaches can suck just as bigly as simplistic free verse. Some might say that at least formalist poetry has meter and possibly rhyme; but, meh, so what?

    For me, the form I'm looking for is in the thought/thinking — the creativity in the ways an idea can be expressed. Free verse can accomplish wonders just like metrical verse in this regard. Both can fail.

    As for Milk & Honey....Here's an example of something that irks me, from the excerpt preview on Amazon:

    the first boy that kissed me
    held my shoulders down
    like the handlebars of
    the first bicycle
    he ever rode
    i was five

    he had the smell of
    starvation on his lips
    which he picked up from
    his father feasting on his mother at 4 a.m.​

    Ok, so running with an excerpt, out of context, might be problematic; but, this sucks. How does the narrator know anything about how that boy held the handlebars of the first bicycle he ever rode? How could that five-year-old have understood that the smell, at the time, was "the smell of starvation," and moreover that the kid had "picked it up from his father feasting on his mother?" But, no. This is some adult poet simply imagining such things; the poem is a mere occasion, a façade, for expressing something the adult wants to express. (So for that matter, how could this adult narrator know anything about that boy's first bicycle ride or how/whether that boy had "picked up" such a thing from his father?)

    What we have here is one modern tactic in free verse (or any verse, but especially common in free verse) of trying to build shocking or inciting or provocative metaphors that are presumably stuffed with meaning. But for me, it's contrived. Hit-me-over-the-head contrived. It's an extremely common tactic these days. But it's not entirely new; much old timey metrical poetry was replete with conceits, and could be just as terrible.

    I've always been tempted to assume that such an approach in free verse is often a mask for the fact that the thoughts themselves are banal, or perhaps for the fact that the lines are pretty much prose broken at random.

    But on the other hand, perhaps the fault in so much modern free verse is the fact that a) it's incredibly intimate, up-close, personal disclosure and b) the poets make the mistake of believing what's important to them personally will automatically be interesting to others. Clothing it with contrived connections and metaphors may be an example of trying to make the Emperor less naked. I don't know. Any of the "bad" or annoying approaches can be rather good if the whole—i.e., the thoughts and ideas within the poem—are good and these are weaved in a compelling way. (I.e., I wouldn't blame the trees so much as the forest.)
     
    Last edited: Feb 27, 2017
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  9. Gryphos

    Gryphos Auror

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    I think you've touched on another unfortunate aspect of modern poetry: that it seems to be incredibly, almost unanimously focused on the feelings of the poet. Nowadays, it seems poems are almost always about what the poet feels, honing in so closely on themselves, looking inwards rather than outwards, as it were. Now, this isn't necessarily new – introspection has been an important part of poetry basically forever.

    However, it seems that nowadays all poets know how to do is look inwards and talk about feelings. There's an interesting quote by Oscar Wilde which goes: 'All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling'. Personally, I take this to mean that great poetry (often) has an inherent element of fakeness to it. Poems are born from feeling, but they are also artificially adapted and assembled – hence the existence of forms like the sonnet, which on one hand is a pure expression of feeling, but on the other has to have been filtered, as it were, by an artificial, constructed formal system. Therefore, it's when poets like Rupi Kaur abandon formal filters and basically vomiting their feelings onto the page that you get horrible, cringe-inducing poetry.

    In fact, thinking about it, I realise that the reason Robert Browning is one of my favourite poets is that he almost never wrote about himself. He built his entire career off of writing poems from the perspectives of personas, and this led to some incredibly creative and powerful works. There's an idea nowadays that poets should 'write from the heart', but I feel that the best poems actually come when poets write from the head, as it were, or the imagination. The Raven is one of the most well known and haunting poems, and yet Edgar Allen Poe claimed himself to have written it logically and methodically in his essay The Philosophy of Composition. Good poetry, like any good writing, comes from careful, intentional, artificial construction, not vomiting your emotions onto a page.
     
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  10. Poetry is good for venting though. Which is why I often write poetry to vent. I don't show it to anyone; most likely it sucks, but I write it. Often writing is a personal, introspective thing for me.

    But, whether anyone else would want to hear about it, I don't know.
     
  11. ^I agree. If my poetry was ever 'constructed artificially' or became something mechanical put out on a page, it would no longer be poetry, just something dull and lifeless.
     
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  12. Thomas Laszlo

    Thomas Laszlo Sage

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    MEEE SO MUCH ME


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  13. Gryphos

    Gryphos Auror

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    Same. I have many times vented my feelings by writing poetry, but invariably I've found those to be the worst of my poems. Better is when I've, as I said, put those feelings through an aesthetic filter that they become bearable. And even then, I try never to make the poem about myself.
     
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  14. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    At some level, it's always artificial. A poem is a created thing; the words don't spontaneously appear on the page merely because of the proximity of poet to page, heh.

    When I wrote earlier, "the poets make the mistake of believing what's important to them personally will automatically be interesting to others," I simply meant that, sure, your own feelings, thoughts, etc., are automatically important to you—you really don't have to do anything to them to make them important to you—but the moment you are going to present these in some form to another person...well then, you probably ought to consider the form you'll use. Will you write them in Klingon, and would your audience be able to understand them as you intend for them to be understood? Heh.

    This idea is important for the writing of fiction as well, in my opinion.

    That said, deciding on the form[at] may be a wide-open decision—depending on many things.
     
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  15. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

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    I perhaps don't read as much poetry as those who have commented before me, and I certainly don't write as much. But I have found that, on the one hand, the poems I wrote from the heart were invariably awful and that those of which I am most proud were written with deliberation and structure. In fact for my favourite of my poems, I outright stole the meter and structure from my favourite A E Housman poem, down to repeating the third line of the first stanza as the first line of the final stanza.

    I'm with Gryphos on this. Poetry is, by its nature, an aesthetic form of conveying whatever it is you want to convey. If function is all, write an essay, a eulogy or a blog post. A poem is about form, and about using form to transmit a feeling, atmosphere or moment in time from one person to another - not merely as a picture or a narrative, not to tell them what is or was, but to bring them into it and feel it too, through that lens of words.

    Think about it. Which is more powerful? Saying "look, you might think I'm dead, but really I'm all around you, I am part of you through your memories, and the atoms that were me once are everywhere in nature, so remember that and don't cry over a rectangle of land where my body is." Or this:

    Ideas are powerful, sure, but poetry kicks that up to eleven. The structure of poetry resonates somewhere within us, somewhere deep in our biology to a time when the spoken word was the only way to convey ideas because writing hadn't been invented yet, and poetic structures were the way to remember and share ideas. And they still are, it's just that the advent of writing has given us more ways of sharing it, but it hasn't stopped those structures from being hardwired into our brains as somehow meaning more and being more important.

    I don't know if any of you have read "Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase" by Mark Forsyth, but if you haven't you should. It's a fantastic book which goes into the way linguistic tools like rhyme, iambic pentameter, alliteration and repetition tap into our psyches and influence our views on what the words are actually saying. I highly recommend it.
     
    Last edited: Mar 21, 2017
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