I’ve found myself in the habit recently of pushing poems on people. It’s quite annoying, I imagine. I interrupt my wife from Outlander to make her read them. I send them to family members over email. I pester friends and acquaintances with them on Discord. When a cousin, a couple weeks ago, messaged me for resources to improve his prose, I rattled off a few of the usual suspects—The Elements of Style, On Writing Well, both with provisos about legalism and style manuals. But then I also recommended poetry. “I learned a lot about writing by reading poems,” I averred. And, hey, cousin, wouldn’t you know—the recently published Poetry Unbound, an anthology based on a podcast of the same name, would probably be a great place to start, if you need one.

Just in case, I dropped him a link and hit send.

Even a few years ago, this enthusiasm would have surprised me. For a long time, and for reasons familiar to anyone who associates poetry with schooling, I didn’t think I “got” poetry. It didn’t click with me. Individual poems could be interesting. But interesting wasn’t the same as satisfying. Nor is interesting even remotely close to the clichés I’d sometimes hear tossed about. I didn’t find Emily Dickinson inspiring. T. S. Eliot could be revelatory—maybe—but you had to figure out what he was saying first. And Mary Oliver, often touted as a poet for the unpoetic masses, appeared to me only occasionally luminous, whatever that meant. What these poets were, however, was consistently work—their poems a problem to be intimidated by, and then picked apart, and then finally, exhaustingly brute-forced into yet another five-paragraph essay.

Taking a first crack at this post years ago, I described my relation to poetry as one of “polite indifference.” But that was a misrecognition. Maybe it was just dishonest. In any case, more accurate is what one contemporary poet has called “the hatred of poetry.” Well, I hated poetry. Or at least I hated my antagonistic, puzzle-box approach to it, honed over years of formal education and my own grade-grubbing pursuit of A-worthy papers.

This hatred—which, thanks to Poetry Unbound and The New Yorker Poetry Podcast, I’ve lately begun to dismantle—was made clear to me in preparation for this post. Nosing through my old papers, I rediscovered a poetry review of Jorie Graham’s Place (2012), which I’d written more than a decade(!!!) ago for a creative writing class. The class, expertly helmed by Elizabeth Vander Lei and Lew Klatt, encouraged a capacious and generous engagement with the book—a fact that makes only more startling how fretful and sorry my review ended up being.

It didn’t present that way of course—fretful, sorry. In fact, I’d argue that it’s sorry and fretful precisely to the extent that it pretends not to be. Impressive on a technical level and measuredly positive about its subject, my review performs competence. It overperforms it, even; my review is all but belligerent in its desire to compose order. It marshals evidence. It advances claims. It chases themes from front cover to back. Yet as a whole, the review remains squeamish, remains conspicuously tightlipped, when it comes to what makes Graham’s collection most compelling: its Whitmanian sprawl, its movement from the inadequacy of the particular to the inadequacy of the general, its steady defiance of easy meaning.

From the puzzle-box crib where I preferred—and, more often than not, prefer—to do my writing, I didn’t know what to do with these features of Graham’s poetics. As a result, I could only ever acknowledge them in ways equally squeamish and tightlipped:

“Jorie Graham’s twelfth book of poetry will prove a struggle for the poetically unversed,” I open the review, punning.

“But perhaps a unified interpretation misses the point,” I conclude the review, winking.

The result is an essay that simulates comprehensiveness while being weirdly anemic. Put differently, the review disdains the actuality of Graham’s poetry. And it disdains it because to reckon with its textured complexity would mean giving up my old habits of competence.

In a post earlier this month, Josh Parks wrote with clarity and verve against the academy’s “mess of mastery.” Calling out the university’s preference for a masculine ethic of certainty, he counterposed “feminist ethics of care, solidarity, and vulnerability.” Scholars, he wrote, must call “bullshit” those pretensions to solitary genius. They must call bullshit those lonely, heroic fictions in which a researcher penetrates the great veil of unknowing, in which he turns his manly blade against all presumptive comers. Something of Josh’s argument is, I believe, the subtext for my changing relation to poetry. Indeed, something of a masculine will-to-power is present not just in the desire to interpret, which Josh so aptly dismantles, but in that desire’s fearful, habituated compulsion.

The habit of needing to cohere. The habit of making sense.

The habit of making to make sense.

Writing in the introduction to Poetry Unbound, poet Pádraig Ó Tuama warns against “the myth that poems are always academic, that they aren’t about real life.” Nineteen-year-old me did not “get” this myth. I did not “get” that a good poem is more than a puzzle with a tidy solution. That it can hold space for unassimilable contradiction. That it can settle, unsettled, into the heart of conflicted particularities and universals and there, disoriented, produce its own kind of pleasure.

I did not “get” any of these ideas, any more than I “got” Graham’s Place.

Rather, reflecting on my 3.9 GPA, nineteen-year-old me curled reflexively into the comforting delusion that confusion has no place. Better, I thought, a thesis unambiguously advanced, than no thesis at all.

And so—I did not allow my confusion to complicate my review.

Or else—I did not know how to write my review in the first place.

1 Comment

  1. Josh Parks

    This is great, Ben—and thank you for the shout-out! I think one thing I’ve learned in literature courses is that an interpretation doesn’t have to be /convincing/ to be good: it can also be surprising, weird, playful, subversive, etc. And, as you point to here, an over-reliance on “evidence” and “competence” and “argument” can make reading poetry more like practicing law. (Incidentally, the practice of law could also use more poetry.)


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