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Friday, April 28, 2017

National Poetry Month: Who gets to write poetry?

Who gets to write poetry?

For a lot of people, poetry is something written by "the other." Professional poets, stuffy ivory-tower academics with glasses pulled down low on their noses and patches on the elbows of their suit coats. Women who have locked themselves in their parents' attics. Mopey teenagers sulking late at night. But the truth is, anyone can write poetry - even if maybe some people shouldn't.

The first rule of poetry is: there are no rules. Of course, the second through billionth rules of poetry contradict this rule, simultaneously proving it to be false and true. There is no agreed-upon definition of what poetry is, but there are very specific and rigid rules regarding meter, rhyme scheme, and structure for specific forms of poetry.

Blank verse is very popular, a poetry style without rhyme or structure. Some people take this as license to throw down anything and call it a poem. One writer I knew would read shopping lists and call them poetry. Other poets accepted that. I could see their point. Even Billy Collins, a poet I greatly admire, wrote a poem about waiting for a friend at a train station. The whole poem consisted of a series of lines saying "Not (name of friend).", followed by a single line with the friend's name.

At the other extreme is the unloved child of modern poetry: poems that rhyme. Once the standard of what constitutes a "poem," poems that rhyme are relatively rare these days. To me this is a welcome change; I find most rhymed couplets childish and tediously inane. Still, like all rules, the demand for a rhyme scheme creates an opportunity for creativity in constraint.

On the other hand one poet - a terrible, and now deceased, poet - once told me that his technique for writing poetry was to find a bunch of words that rhyme, and then fill in the blanks.

There are objectively terrible poets, poets who are universally recognized as bad poets and refuse to do anything to improve their work. More common are subjectively terrible poets. Almost every poet will be hated by someone else, or several someone elses. Sometimes these people are poets. This can be born of jealousy, or a desire to suppress what is perceived as competition for listeners' ears. It can also be born of a judgement based on a sense of what is good for poetry and what is bad for poetry. Some poets aren't just bad poets, they actually threaten the perception of poetry written by other poets, effectively filling their listeners with disgust going forward.

One poet I  know writes pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-hip poetry, poems that sound cool and meaningful but ultimately aren't just meaningless, but also mock the listeners for having listened in the first place, for trying to extract meaning from something that was ultimately devoid of meaning. At the same time, he also actively works to silence other poets, to discourage them from writing and reading poems. Why does he do it? Is he trying to suppress bad poets from reading and writing bad poetry? Is he trying to silence all other voices in the area, to make himself the last poet standing? I don't know. I gave up trying to understand why he does what he does long ago.

So who gets to write poetry? Anyone. Anyone who is willing to take the time and put in the effort, anyone who is willing to take the chance to get up in front of friends and strangers and say "Here's something I wrote..." Will you be good? Maybe. But if you're willing to work at it, maybe you can get better. And maybe you will someday be called a "poet" by someone else.

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