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Pickle Me This

April 25, 2008

Be kinder to animals

As I have been dilettanting my way through Poetic April, I was particularly interested to read Russell Smith’s piece in the Globe & Mail today: “The best verse is worth a wade through the dross.” In which Smith strikes an unashamedly elitist stance, decrying the teaching of poetry as a form of self-expression primarily. Something is lost. “[Contemporary poetry] doesn’t seem difficult at all; in fact, it seems like an exercise to encourage children to be kinder to animals.”

Smith writes, “Poetry is historically the basis of all literature, and understanding what poetry teaches us– that language can be used as flexible material, that aural and aesthetic effects can be as communicative as mere definitions can be, that words can have many meanings and that ambiguity can be powerful, indeed that lack of clarity can evoke multiple meanings– understanding all this is crucial to understanding all language and to being a better writer in any genre.”

That went on too long, I realize, but I wasn’t about to cut Smith off. Sometimes I thank goodness for the unashamedly elite, for though I am not altogether convinced by his argument– I think any sentence beginning with “Poetry is…” is inherently fallible– it makes sense to me. It’s a perspective I want to keep in mind as I approach poems through their Full House references.

I agree that a lot of contemporary poetry is bad, and admit that I’ve certainly played my role in contributing to the travesty– guilty of finishing “Poetry is…” with “line breaks.” It takes some stupid nerve to create something whose whole history you’re ignorant of, to be a writer but not a reader, to express and never listen. But this is the very worst of it, and even here, I am sure, somebody is still doing it well. I am sure that poetry gets redefined every day, and is even richer for it.

And certainly this month I have found the very best of it. There has been no shortage of contemporary poets whose work fits Smith’s criteria, poets fully aware of what “Poetry is…” or at least trying to solve the problem with innovation.

In “the dross” of which Smith speaks, still “the best verse” rises, and you can find these easily– these are the verses somebody bothered to publish books of. And even within those books, if the poetic criteria is not quite met, well then it gets us talking, and it gets us thinking, about poetry of all things, and poetry is born again.

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