28 June 2011

the poetry home repair manual

I'm reading this book right now by Ted Kooser called The Poetry Home Repair Manual. It has a picture of a toolbox on the front, which serves to remind me that poetry should be a practical thing, built on a solid framework that people can relate to.

At least that's what I go for in my poetry. I know there are other kinds of poetry. The kind where you get to the end and say, "You must be much deeper than me, dear poet, because I understood about three words in there, and one of them was I."

But then I think of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, that lengthy poem by TS Eliot that I tripped into in 8th grade and immediately adored. I didn't understand much of that poem then—I understand a modicum more now and I think I will always be re-reading it to find new layers—but the flow of the language entranced me.

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.


Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.


For I have known them all already, known them all:—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons

I didn't even drink coffee in 8th grade, but I read that line and knew it was right. I heard in it: the world is one empty social obligation after another.

Oh my. Such drama and such falsehood. My social obligations at that age amounted to showing up to school on time, doing my homework, participating in a sport, and going to youth group. How empty! How vain! How unfulfilling! How my life was going nowhere!

But I was 14, remember, and at 14, you have perfected world-weariness, an ennui with all you find around you, even though, in coffee spoon terms, you are still in the womb.

So Prufrock goes against everything I go for in my own poetry.

It's dense.

You have to be very well-read to catch all the references, these asides that are practically inside jokes for the literary elite.

There's this thing in Latin at the very beginning, for Heaven's sake.

But I still love it. I read Prufrock, and I am somewhere else. I am someone else. I am in someone else's head, and it turns out he has the same ponderings about the world as I do, as we all do: Am I special? Where do I fit in? What am I doing with my life? Am I significant to anyone else?

And TS Eliot managed to convey all of that in this lyrical, flowing style—in this poem that, if it were a house, would be a country estate in Berkshire, complete with a butler and staff of 40.

That's what good poetry, good writing, should do. No, I don't mean it should imitate a country estate, or even a shack in the country. Good writing should help you connect with the universal.

We all find ourselves in this world, and what does that mean? Good writing helps you start to put your finger on it, whether that good writing comes wrapped in Prufrock or in Ted Kooser.

Whether it's practical and creates an image you can relate to—driving through traffic, say—or whether it's symbolic and creates a feeling you can relate to.

That's what good writing does, and that is why I keep reading. And writing.

1 comment:

  1. I feel that way about W. H. Auden poems, where I get attached to the way they sound long before I understand anything about what they mean. I find they make more sense after they are memorized.

    I checked out a CD of Auden reading his own poems; did you know libraries had that sort of thing? Although T. S. Eliot reading his own poetry is a little frightening.



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