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Good poetry, bad poetry, and something in between

Wednesday, Feb 26 2003
The other day, a co-worker and I were talking in my office when she noticed on my desk a copy of Paint Me Like I Am, a collection of poems by WritersCorps participants (more about that later). When I offered her the book to read, she stepped back and put her hands up in front of her, as if I'd held out a plate of squirming grubs. "Oh, no," she said vehemently, "I hate poetry." As she walked out the door, she tossed a comment over her shoulder with only a slight smile: "Don't you know poetry is a dead art?"

Well, yes and no. I admit to some ambivalence about the form. When it's good, each word hits me with a resounding Yes, and each line makes me nod my head. But when it's bad, it's more depressing than just about any other type of weak writing. Because the form is generally short, more people think they can write poetry than can write, say, a novel. Like children's books, poems seem simple but aren't. A bad poem is concentrated disappointment.

I won't presume to define good poetry, and I certainly can't claim to be an expert on the subject. But I will say that there's a kind of poem that stands apart from the good/bad dichotomy: verse by children. In a 1998 essay called "Man Goes to See a Doctor" in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik describes the supposed wisdom his analyst offers him about whether to have a kid: ""The child will try your patience repeatedly, yet you will find that there are many pleasures in child-rearing. ... You will find, for instance, that the child will make many amusing mistakes in language.'" Though the advice is dubious, the point is sound: Children do make many amusing mistakes in language, and when they get a little older and start to write, those mistakes sometimes turn into poetry. Paint Me Like I Am is evidence.

Poetry has been in the news lately -- a rare occurrence -- ever since Laura Bush canceled a planned conference called "Poetry and the American Voice," scheduled for Feb. 12 at the White House, when she discovered that one of the attendees, poet Sam Hamill, had invited his fellow artists to send him verse in opposition to war in Iraq. Hamill intended to compile the work into an anthology and give it to the first lady. As columnist Katha Pollitt wrote about the debacle in The Nation, "In this most insulated and choreographed of administrations, the 'American voice' -- note the singular -- is welcome only when it says what the White House wants to hear." In protest, bookshops around the country held "Read-Ins" on Feb. 12, at which poets both famous and not read their work.

Much has been written about the affair, and I don't think I need to get into the politics of it here. But I will say that the specter of poetry written by invitation is grim (even Pollitt pens one such poem, which is just embarrassing). I went to one of the Read-Ins, a gathering of about 20 people at Bird & Beckett Books in Glen Park, and there witnessed some of the worst poetry I've heard in a long time. One woman rhymed "missile" with "gristle" and "epistle"; another read a "found poem" based on excerpts from Sen. Robert Byrd's speech on the Senate floor that day. Moving as his words were, her reading of them seemed more of a stunt than a poem.

WritersCorps, a national nonprofit for "at-risk youth" with crews in Washington, D.C., the Bronx, and San Francisco, invites its participants to write poems, too. But as demonstrated in Paint Me Like I Am, the latest collection of the kids' work (and the first to be released by a publishing house, rather than self-published), some of these youngsters have talent. Many of the poems stay with me long after I've finished the book (it only takes an hour to read). "For John," by Joyanna Deluna of the Bronx, ends this way: "And it occurred/ To me/ Maybe I shouldn't/ Write at all but/ Then I remember you/ & I realize/ That these are/ Poetic times." It sounds at once like a curse and a promise. Christina Duculan of San Francisco, in "What's in a Minute," covers such an astonishing field of occurrence in her 20 lines ("Right now a man sitting on a bench is/ Laughing, a woman is giving birth/ To a boy in a car, a girl is getting/ Caught stealing from a store ...") that I wish she'd go on for another few pages.

Each chapter of the book begins with what looks like an assignment: "Imagine yourself sitting in a room that holds everybody who has ever been a part of your family," "With a group of friends, create a circle within which you can read your poetry to each other." The instructions make me cringe; they're straight out of a million books on how to be an artist. Fortunately, the poems that follow rarely conform to the command, or at least not in the most obvious ways. "Why Do They Say," a quick shot from an S.F. kid who goes by the name Armand, fits into that family section, but he still manages to produce a funny, poignant take on an old saw. It begins, "What is it, why do they say,/ When I was your age I had/ To walk ten miles to school,/ You could get five king-size candy bars/ For a nickel ...," and ends, "... Why do they/ Say when I was your/ Age I was just like/ You." Yes.

Are these poems at the level of Emily Dickinson or Langston Hughes, two of the writers whose work was supposed to be read at the White House earlier this month? Of course not. Then again, Dickinson's juvenilia is pretty painful, too. Here's an excerpt from a valentine she wrote when she was 20: "Oh the Earth was made for lovers, for damsel, and hopeless swain,/ For sighing, and gentle whispering, and unity made of twain." Ugh.

There are pieces in Paint Me Like I Am that are no good. Yet as Nikki Giovanni writes in her foreword: "We need poetry .../ We deserve poetry." I'd argue that we need good poetry, that we deserve good poetry -- but in the end, it's the freedom to decide which is which that makes the difference. Good thing we live in poetic times.

About The Author

Karen Zuercher


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