Sunday, November 25, 2012

My 2012 Poetry Activity

It's funny to me that this is only my second post of 2012 on this blog, because I read poetry every single night before falling asleep and I think about poetry quite a bit!  I'm catching up on some blogging this weekend, so I thought I would talk about the poetry I have read this year.

20** Best American Poetry - I was given this poetry anthology as a gift, and dutifully plowed my way through it.  I am not listing which year it is, because I read every single poem, and did not enjoy a single one.  Sorry famous poets!  I'm sure this is my own shortcoming and not theirs...

I'm so new to poetry as an art form, that each book of poetry I pick up is an exploration of new territory.  I'm slowly figuring out what I do and do not like, and so far, I'm pretty big on meter and rhyme.  I can conceptually understand why many (most?) modern poets no longer use meter and rhyme, in the same way that many (most?) modern painters no longer feel the need to paint representationally.  In both art forms my taste tends towards the traditional.  

I love marveling at the technique and craft of a realistically rendered painting of a tree or person or scene.  I can even handle impressionist tweaking of reality, exaggerating the colors to bring a heightened sense of emotion to a painting, but as soon as it looses representation, I lose interest.  I'm sure a bunch of splattered paint on a canvas was very clever, and I can see where it fits into the continuum of art history, but I find it extremely boring.

For me the whole fun of poetry is that you are trying to express something, but there are constraints you must work within.  When someone can express something beautifully but still maintain a consistent meter and rhyme scheme, I marvel at it, the same way I do with a beautifully rendered painting.  The craft of it overwhelms me.  And this doesn't mean it has to be straightforward - I appreciate a strange turn of phrase, or things that are less tangible than just pure description, but as soon as it's just random words thrown together with no structure, I am bored and lose interest.

So I absolutely hated this collection of poetry, but I think it was a good expedition into unknown territory.  By reading a lot of poetry that I disliked, I took one step closer to learning what kind of poetry I do like!

The New Oxford Book of English Light Verse - The two books of poetry I have enjoyed the most so far have been The Penguin Book of Nonsense Verse and The Best of Ogden Nash. Both of these fall firmly under the umbrella of "Light Verse" so I thought this anthology would be right up my alley.  

It is organized chronologically by the birthdates of the various poets, and I found that the further I got into the book, the more I enjoyed it. When I broke into the 20th century, I really started enjoying the poems.  I think for the most part, the older work was a bit hard to penetrate because of either antiquated language, or topics which I simply did not understand (British politics, wars, etc.)

There were a few exceptions, such as "An Austrian Army" by Alaric Watts (1797-1864) which has twenty six lines, one for each letter of the alphabet.  The meter, rhymes, wordplay and alliteration were just mind bending.  And every so often a poet's writing style would be straightforward enough that I could enjoy the humor of the poem.

So again, this wasn't a home run, but I felt like this book helped me hone in on an era of poetry that I could fully explore and enjoy before trying to expand my tastes.

Ogden Nash: The Life and Work of America's Laureate of Light Verse - Claire and I went to a movie at our local theatre on a Saturday night, and they had a raffle, in which they call a few numbers from the movie tickets that were issued.  I won a $10 gift certificate to the second-hand bookstore across the street!  I went in a few days later and found this biography of Ogden Nash.  Since he is my favorite poet, I thought it would be quite enjoyable, and I was not wrong.

It was sprinkled throughout with his delightful verse, but it also went into Nash's long career and the many different venues he found for his skills.  He wrote greeting cards, wrote lyrics for musicals, published hundreds a poems a year in The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post and many others, and also toured the country doing readings and promoting the many collections of his poetry which were published over the years.  

The guy at the book store seemed very surprised that I was interested in Ogden Nash.  I told him that Nash was my favorite poet and he seemed very confused by that, a reaction which was repeated upon my next poetry purchase...

The Life and Times of Archy & Mehitabel - I went to the other used bookstore in our neighborhood, and saw some beautiful hand lettering on the spine of a book in the poetry section.  I plucked it off the shelf and flipped through the book only to find dozens of beautiful spot illustrations by George Herriman (of Krazy Kat fame).  I was tempted to buy it just based on those, but to sweeten the deal there was a great introduction by E.B. White.  After reading the introduction, I bought the book, which again, the bookseller seemed to think was very atypical.  I'm not sure why...

I'm still reading this book (currently on page 229 of 447) and it is one of the most unique, enjoyable bodies of work I have ever come across.  It was originally a newspaper column for the New York Sun starting in 1914.  The premise is that a free verse poet is reincarnated as a cockroach (ha!) who sneaks into the New York Sun offices each night and then jumps from key to key on a typewriter to leave messages for Don Marquis.  There is no punctuation or capital letters (because he can't push the shift key!) so his dispatches are presented in a faux-free verse which makes fun of the form (which must have been somewhat new at the time).  Here is a small snippet, with line-breaks preserved so you can see the unique writing style:
boss i am disappointed in
some of your readers they
are always asking how does
archy work the shift so as to get a
new line or how does archy do
this or do that they
are always interested in technical
details when the main question is
whether the stuff is literature or not
Mehitabel used to be an Egyptian princess, but has now transmigrated into the body of a cat.  She's friends with Archy and he reports on her various activities.  It is such a unique idea and there is so much energy in the writing, it is a real joy to read.  I especially like it when Archy breaks into proper rhymes.  Here is my favorite such example that I have come across so far, "archy s autobiography":
if all the verse what i have wrote
were boiled together in a kettle
twould make a meal for every goat
from nome to popocatapetl
and all the prose what i have penned
if laid together end to end
would reach from russia to south bend
but all the money what i saved
from all them works at which i slaved
is not enough to get me shaved
every morning 
and all the dams which i care
if heaped together in the air
would not reach much of anywhere
they wouldnt 
because i dont shave every day
and i write for arts sake anyway
and always hate to take my pay
i loathe it 
and all of you who credit that
could sit down on an opera hat
and never crush the darn thing flat
you skeptics 
Oh man, that stuff makes my brain do back-flips of joy.  Anyway, the Herriman drawings are also incredible, so I highly recommend checking out this great book.

On that same trip I also picked up The Faber Book of Children's Verse, which I have not yet begun to read.  Based on my other experiences though, I think Children's verse might be a good area for me to explore.  I tend to lean more towards children's books, or YA stuff than "adult" novels in my regular reading, so maybe I'll enjoy this collection more than "adult" poetry.

I haven't written any poetry since March, and the way my schedule is shaping up, I don't think I'll have much time for it in the immediate future either.  I'm not giving up on the idea however, I just need to find the time.

For now I am enjoying reading as much poetry as possible and trying to figure out which poetry I enjoy the most.  If any readers out there who are more well-versed in poetry (pun intended!) have any recommendations for me based on this blog entry, I welcome them in the comments section!


Isaac said...

I'm glad you are discovering Archy, Alec! If you're interested to see it, I did a little portrait of him (and a blog post about him) here:

Alec Longstreth said...

Good stuff, Isaac!