“Though the road’s been rocky it sure feels good to me.” -Bob Marley
I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason. -John Keats
Above all else, a poem must be fun. Even poems that deal with decidedly not-fun topics (death, disaster, cruelty) must have elements of joy.
Fun. Not exactly a word thrown about in academic circles or in serious reviews of serious poetry. But, if a poem’s not fun, the likelihood of me finishing it (or enjoying it) are slim to none.
What does this word mean, anyway? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, fun means: “Diversion, amusement, sport; also, boisterous jocularity or gaiety, drollery. Also, a source or cause of amusement or pleasure.” This definition implies some fluffiness on the part of the word fun, a lack of rigor. Fun: a beach umbrella? Fun: a pink, fizzy drink?
Sure. But, not quite right. When I speak of fun in regards to poetry, I am not suggesting that a poem should be as mellow as a summer vacation. A poem shouldn’t be slip-shod or sloppy or lazy, but neither should it be so serious or grave or dour that it creates no “amusement or pleasure” for the reader. Even if the poem broaches a difficult subject, the experience of reading the poem, of hanging out with the poem, should feel good. If it doesn’t, find a new poem.
This is not to say that we can necessarily understand all of a poem’s pleasures on a first read. Sometimes we must return to a poem years later in order to appreciate it fully—to drink up our rightful pleasure. For instance: Arthur Rimbaud. I read him for the first time last fall. I liked him a smidge more than Charles Baudelaire, and, at that time, I liked Baudelaire not at all. “Prose poems!” I scoffed. “Difficult, affected language! Awfully strange….” Well, a year has passed since I first read Rimbaud, and (surprise) now I love the guy and am quite fond of the prose poem. A poem “must give pleasure” (Stevens), but we may not feel the pleasure for some time. That’s okay.
Fun, of course, can mean different things for different folks. For me, fun means:
- Music. Rhythm, rhyme, melody, and this, in regards to poetic craft, from Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto”: “As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense.” In my opinion, poetry’s technical apparatuses should be used to get the reader to like and engage with the poem—not to highlight one’s ability with technical apparatuses.
- Image. I like an image that is rooted in the quotidian world, but speaks to the cosmos, the heart, and the unhinged world of dreams. I like an image to be wild, but also intimate. An image should be uncanny, in the Freudian sense. To be spooked and surprised is a kind of fun—one that I require for a poem to fly.
- Visual appeal. Frank, again: “If you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you.” Enough said.
- Self-love (sorta). The poet may make fun of herself, the poet may be angry at herself, the poet may hate herself… but it must be for the sake of the poem. Underneath this high drama, I should feel the rigor and intensity of a practicing artist who believes, for the most part, in her work, and takes pleasure in crafting a tongue-in-cheek, angry, hateful poem. In a poem, I’m not asking for Naomi Wolf-esque, therapist’s couch brand of self-love, but I am asking for a little love, of some kind. Self-hatred ruins the ride.
- “Negative Capability.” There is no logical reason, really, to have fun or enjoy yourself, but to do so, in some way, is to affirm Keats’ notion of negative capability: the argument that we can exist and that art can exist (can exist beautifully), without our intellectual comprehension of it.
Beyond all that, I want the poem to like me. I want the poem to be a handsome-enough date who arrives at my doorstep with a bouquet of dandelions. I resist poetry that requires specialized knowledge, or an infinite amount of patience to decipher its meaning (mind games). I resist the poem that balks at my life history, my knowledge-level, or my perceptive abilities. I need a Statue of Liberty poem: a poem that greets me and welcomes me into its world. A democratic poem?
Some think that T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound both require specialized knowledge and infinite patience to appreciate their work, but I find the opposite to be true. Although the personalities of both T.S. and Ezra occasionally stand in the way of my appreciation of their work, I find myself continually drawn to Eliot’s “Waste Land” and Pound’s inscrutable “Cantos”— the “Pisan Cantos” especially. Yes, if you know your Chinese character symbols and your ancient history, these poems may mean more to you. Yet, such specialized knowledge is not necessary to enjoy these poems because the language employed is so exciting and musical—to any ear. Strange images are scattered freely throughout, and the poems look… crazed? new? inviting? They’ve got muscle and they’ve got verve.
I considered writing here about my anointed poster boy of Dour, Unpleasant Poetry, who lacks both muscle and verve. He is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a literary megastar. However, the irony of a young, bright-eyed poet [me] taking on a well-respected master [poet who will go unnamed] was not lost on me.
I will say that his work is the epitome of what I believe to be the Poetry of Not Fun. Here’s why: Pointless misogyny. End-stop after end-stop (that’s poetry speak for “no flow”). Bland sounds. Smart-alecky smarts. Mean humor. Horrific sex. Bucket loads of irony. Existential depression. I think you catch my drift?
I’m not saying that I require sap, but I do require red, thumping Heart present somewhere in a poem, maybe just for a millisecond. I’m not saying I require a squeaky clean poem full of “wisdom lines” (thanks, Robert Bruno, for alerting me to this term) or easily-understood, normative feelings; I like a poem with the knife edge of darkness, and I like weird, mysterious humor in the light of disaster. But, I also want poems to sound good, to look good, and to speak to the rawness of the human condition without taking the easy “Life Sucks, It’s Such a Nightmare” route.
For a while, I wrote reviews of new poetry collections for the University of Arizona Poetry Center’s online newsletter. One month, I was assigned The Book of What Remains by Benjamin Alire Saenz. It’s an earnest book, and bubbling over with heartbreak and regret. Saenz is painfully aware of poets like Dour Poster Boy and (with humor, with fun) pushes back. In “What I Have to Sing About,” Saenz writes:
Lately, I’ve been singing. Not in public, not with this voice, but singing
In that casual, turn-off-your-brain, private, pedestrian way. It’s not as if
I’m imagining an audience. This is not about applause. This is about something
Called happiness. How’s that for sincerity. Sincerity—it’s the new irony.
I’ve been sincerely and unironically singing my guts out for the past few weeks.
Of course, Saenz is breaking all my dictums here about the requirements for a “fun poem.” But, I still love it, in part because of its pure-heartedness, its devil-may-care attitude. I can hear the voice of the author, clearly. He isn’t afraid. To me, there’s something immensely pleasurable and exiting about a poet who isn’t hiding under his veils, his fears, his technical apparatuses. Later on in the poem, Saenz has this bit that hooks me hard:
I’ve made some wrong turns
And gotten lost. I even lost myself. My entire self. If you have ever lost yourself,
You know how skyless and starless and dark the world can become. Still, I can
Sing about the journey. Why the hell not? Listen, even when you sing the blues,
We’ve arrived at my last bullet point of fun: Attention to Real Life. Okay, you may, argue: but what about Rimbaud and his crazed, hallucinatory verse? Answer: I think that that was Rimbaud’s experience of daily life. But, back to Saenz: there’s nothing particularly new about “making some wrong turns” or los[ing] the self.” We’ve heard that on Dr. Phil. We’ve heard that in “Amazing Grace.” But, getting lost and losing the self… regardless of how familiar, those are some real human experiences, experiences that many of us (all of us?) endure from time to time. I don’t want poems to ignore these regular, painful aspects of the human condition just because such territory might bring along baggage or the potential for trite language. I want poetry to help me endure my own “skyless” and “starless” times, not make it worse. I want poetry to do this in a new, surprising way. Here, I was surprised that even the most depressing, dark song is still “singing”–an affirmative utterance.
Fun. A poem built with joy, even when that joy is a kind of pain. Bob Marley says, “Though the road’s been rocky it sure feels good to me.” Sounds like my kind of poem.
Photo: Chris McCreedy