This post discusses my feelings about poetry as an art form. In it I reflect on works by my favourite poets, and I also include reviews for the following poetry collections:
- Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
- Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire
- New and Selected Poems Volume Two by Mary Oliver
How I Relate to Poetry
I like words. I like the power they have. The beauty of them. The pain they can elicit. The sadness, the joy, the fear, the ecstasy…
I am unfortunately sorely lacking in the skills of stringing words together to say what I mean, what I feel. I am always long winded, can never get to the point, always editing myself, and reediting…
So I truly admire anyone who has word skills, word artists if you will… Writers, poets…
I also am utterly clueless about what makes something good writing or bad writing. Good poetry or bad poetry. I can only go on how the piece of writing made me feel.
Does anyone else watch YouTube videos of poets?
It’s something I’ve done on and off for a few years. I watch these things called poetry slams.
I know nothing about the intimate details of this world nor have I ever been to a traditional poetry recital in my life… but these videos somehow pull me in. There’s something so powerful in the way these artists that breathes such pure emotion into the pieces. It’s a beautiful marriage of language and performance, and I am frequently left awestruck by the depth of emotions that these poets are able to elicit from themselves as performers, from the audiences, and from me the viewer at home in my pjs watching on my tablet.
This old performance by Clementine Von Radics is one of my all time favourites…
And this is another one of my favs by Rudy Francisco
Yet when I read those same words by my favourite poetry slam artists I often feel a deep emptiness??? And I cannot explain why.
And the same thing happens me with any sort of modern poetry… there’s something in the on-page aesthetic of how these poems are laid out that claws against my soul.
Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
Rupi Kaur has become hugely popular in recent years and though I identify strongly with her themes of womanhood I find her poetry to be nothing more than a collection of beautiful thoughts rather than pieces I find to be lyrically beautiful.
I read her collection Milk and Honey some years ago. And as I touched on before, the themes covered are incredibly relevant with how they champion female empowerment and explore all facets of personhood. And the way she captures her thoughts in a few words makes it a highly emotive style of poetry which is probably why so many people connect with her writing.
i am a museum full of art― Rupi Kaur, Milk and Honey
but you had your eyes shut”
But in my opinion there is a difference in saying/telling what you feel and in writing/showing what you feel. And therefore I felt Milk and Honey was nothing more than a bunch of very quotable quotes about subject matters that need to be explored, and put front and centre into the public mindset, but without the lyricism of poetry. Her prose choices just left me cold.
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire
However a similarly popular modern collection of poetry that I did love is Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth.
I savoured that short book of poems for weeks on end. It’s hard to know what to even say about that particular collection as it feels so personal when you read it. My experience with the words was so intimate. As I was reading I would often read aloud the poems within so that I could slow myself down and savour each beautiful word; savour the stillness and the calm that I found in the quiet of my own voice reading aloud to myself.
Truth. Beauty. Love.
That’s the essence of those poems and my heart felt so enriched by each of them.
“Your daughter is ugly.Warsan Shire, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth
She knows loss intimately,
carries whole cities in her belly.
Your daughter’s face is a small riot,
her hands are a civil war,
a refugee camp behind each ear,
a body littered with ugly things.
doesn’t she wear
the world well?”
The Mastery of Seamus Heaney
An older poet I’ve always loved is the late Seamus Heaney. To me he was a master of rhythmical lyricism, poetic narrative, and emotion. Some of my favourite poems by him are Clearances, Digging, and Mid-Term Break…
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedsidefrom Clearances, Seamus Heaney
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives—
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.
…and each one of these poems evokes incredible imagery in my mind’s eye while also eliciting deep swells of emotion.
And maybe that’s because we are both Irish.
There’s a familiarity in his poetry that I identify with. The turn of phrase, the social themes, the familial relationships… they’re all acutely familiar to me and I think that’s what I look for in poetry. I look for something that gives words and framing to my emotions and life experiences.
New and Selected Poems Volume Two by Mary Oliver
So in recent weeks I thought to seek out an American contemporary of Seamus Heaney and read a collection by the late Mary Oliver. I found a collection entitled New and Selected Poems, Volume Two in my library’s eCatalogue and over a number of weeks worked my way through it.
And it started out so strongly with the beautiful poem Everything.
I want to make poems that say right out, plainly what I mean, that don’t go looking for the laces of elaboration, puffed sleeves.Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Volume Two
But from there I struggled with this collection. The style of writing is incredibly accessible and very beautiful… but the themes covered didn’t resonate with me. Just not my cup of tea it seems.
I thought that the poem Everything spoke a truth. Spoke to the wanting to be heard without the bells and whistles. Spoke to the authentic human voice.
But then the poems all began to follow a pattern of seeing life through nature which isn’t a bad thing. Being close to nature and understanding the beauty of the natural world around us is very awe inspiring… but somehow I felt that it kept me at an arms length from the poet’s deepest feelings?
I guess at this particular time of my life I’m looking for something. Something I can’t quite put my finger on but it’s something that will help me to see the beauty in a world that I’m more and more feeling overwhelmed by… and you’d have thought that poems discussing the beauty of nature would have done that for me … but they didn’t.
And once I reached the poem entitled The Poet With His Face In His Hands that in essence was about drowning human pain behind the roar of nature… well I got upset.
The Poet With His Face In His Hands
You want to cry aloud for your
mistakes. But to tell the truth the world
doesn’t need anymore of that sound.
So if you’re going to do it and can’t
stop yourself, if your pretty mouth can’t
hold it in, at least go by yourself across
the forty fields and the forty dark inclines
of rocks and water to the place where
the falls are flinging out their white sheets
like crazy, and there is a cave behind all that
jubilation and water fun and you can
stand there, under it, and roar all you
want and nothing will be disturbed; you can
drip with despair all afternoon and still,
on a green branch, its wings just lightly touched
by the passing foil of the water, the thrush,Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems Volume Two
puffing out its spotted breast, will sing
of the perfect, stone-hard beauty of everything.”
Maybe that’s the right thing? To feel upset? Poetry is supposed to elicit strong responses in us I guess.
But in this instance the emotions this collection evoked in me were not the feelings I wanted this book to connect to. It made me feel angry. It made me feel as if I should suffer quietly. The collection felt all a little bit too pious and made me feel shamed about myself.
Oliver’s poetry is beautiful. There’s no denying that. But her words didn’t nourish my soul. Instead of the comfort I was seeking I found only painful stoicism … and maybe… most likely that’s me projecting myself into what I imagine were the thought processes of Oliver so I shouldn’t see her poetry negatively..
But in this most intimate of experiences reading the poet’s words I did not find what I was looking for. I only found darkness.
To Wrap Up
I don’t really know what the point of this blog post is. I think it’s just an exercise in showing that poetry is a deeply personal and intimate experience, and that there isn’t a right or wrong way to read and enjoy it.
And also that poetry shouldn’t just be the remit of literature students or incredibly artsy and creative types. Poetry is for us all, and all of our different interpretations of it are valid.
I enjoy reading Charles Bukowski for instance even though many people find his writing to be quite hateful …to me he makes the ugly beautiful and challenges me in unexpected ways.
The great Irish poet William Butler Yeats will forever remain close to my heart and the poet to whom I return most often. Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven is my favourite poem of all.
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.WB Yeats, Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
I will keep reading poetry collections because it’s something I enjoy doing. And I hope that you join me in that.