Essay

Poetry on Deadline

Life as a poetry columnist.

by David Biespiel
The Oregonian book editor, Jeff Baker, used to cover the Portland Trail Blazers. Each month I email him my poetry column and usually I don’t get much response. At most he writes back, “Thanks, David.” The public, however, has loudly responded.

Some readers take the poems to heart. A woman even called my house to say that she was so delighted by Muriel Rukeyser’s “In Her Burning”—a poem about an old woman’s randiness—that she was going to bring it to her book group (“The other ladies will love it!” she said).

Another reader thrust Robert Frost’s “To Earthward” into my hands at my son’s soccer match and said she was having trouble understanding it. Our boys had played on the same team for years, since they were in kindergarten. There’s some irony, I suppose, in the moment—as the other parents were shouting at kids to kick or run, she was asking me, “Could Frost be this dark?” I answered her in my next column. Yes, he can, that his work overall is far darker than the crusty, Yankee poet mask he wore in public suggests, that he saw the poem as recording “one of the greatest changes my nature has undergone,” that he refused to read it in public, and that it’s a troubling, beautiful poem about facing one’s shame.

The complaints have piled up, too. One reader argued that poetry didn’t deserve such attention—even monthly—declaring, “Only school-marmish, gray-haired biddies could possibly care about poetry.” I took that personally: School-marmish? OK. Gray-haired? Not yet, pal.

Another wrote to plead, “Enough with the big themes, sir, could you just explain the damned things.”

Others have written to say that a poem I introduced was too obscure (one person felt that all the poems were too obscure). These complaints about poetry’s alleged obscurity rankle the most. These readers are saying, in essence, “Give me something easier, something I don’t have to think about, something I can read the way I read the rest of the newspaper.”

One person wrote, and I quote directly: “Why don’t you ever introduce something by Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, Naomi Shihab Nye, William Stafford, Sharon Olds, or Maya Angelou. Poets that don’t make me work.”

The last thing readers need are poems by Billy Collins and Ted Kooser introduced in a regular newspaper column. Poets like these have their place, don’t get me wrong. A poetry column—my poetry column, at least—is intended to offer an entry into the entirety of poetry by presenting longstanding masterpieces, forgotten beauties, and recently published gems—not just to provide the most accessible layer of the contemporary moment. I see the column as guiding a reader, as showing a way to enter a poem. Now that I’ve been writing this column for several years—and am thinking about the public responses to it—I’m more and more certain that, despite some complaints, most of my readers have no problems reading a poem, that most of them like poetry, and that most of them want a poem that’s not Art of the Obvious.

Why? Because audiences crave mastery over the difficult. Surely we enjoy hearing an extremely talented musician play difficult music. And we admire the more difficult triumphs of the sculptor. Had we seen the lousy chunk of marble Michelangelo was given to carve his David we’d have even more awe for his genius. In the same way, we want to watch an elite athlete, a diver, for instance, nail a high degree-of-difficulty reverse three-and-a-half somersault with no more splash than a teardrop. Just because it’s a damned hard thing to do.

A poetry column provides a context for that difficulty, a bit of color commentary: Who is the poet? What is a useful way to begin thinking about the poem? How does the poem connect to the history of the art?

What sort of poem can work? An example: Cesar Vallejo’s surrealist poem, “Under Poplars,” from a new translation by Rebecca Seiferle. I wrote a column about this poem in March 2004. Re-reading it today, I can see that the column begins by characterizing the man behind the poem, then describes Vallejo’s connection to American poetry. Writing about Vallejo gave me an opportunity to say something reasonable about surrealism—that readers shouldn’t fear it, for one thing—and to clarify Vallejo’s surrealist modus operandi.

I provided strategies for how to shift one’s emphasis—that looking at a more abstract poem that embraces twists of reality requires something different of us than looking at, say, a sentimental, representational sort of poem. In this way the column provided a handhold for how to read a more difficult poem, an experience that might broaden, or even tweak readers’ sensibilities.

Plenty of poetry readers are out there. But a familiar accessible infrastructure to assist them isn’t. Other than the Oregonian, there is only one other regular poetry column in a major newspaper that I’m aware of, Poet’s Choice, currently written by Robert Pinsky, in the Washington Post. Toronto’s Globe and Mail used to have a weekly column on poetry, but now they run a limerick about the week’s news. Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry paragraph is syndicated in some newspapers, published weekly on the Poetry Foundation Web site, and is partially funded by the Foundation, even though he gives it away free, something for which the 18th century poet and critic Samuel Johnson—who is famous for saying that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money”—would have been horrified to learn.

I should add, too, that the Oregonian not only runs the First Sunday on poetry column, but two weeks later it runs a column (by B.T. Shaw) about poets specifically from the Northwest. And the other weeks, if you can believe it, it publishes original poetry. I mean none of this as a reflection on me—the credit belongs entirely to a true friend of the poets, Jeff Baker—but if there’s a newspaper in America that has a broader weekly coverage of poetry I haven’t heard of it.

If even one-quarter of the 750,000 Portland-area Oregonian readers alone read the book review each week, that’s a pretty good readership for a single poem. Baker sticks his neck out for poetry every month because all together the poetry coverage is popular. The number crunchers in the newspaper’s corner office are always pressuring him about why he devotes any ink to poetry at all. His section lost a full page recently, yet he still insists on running something on poetry every week.

So where does that put us? A few nights ago I heard a late-night jazz DJ introduce Shirley Horn’s rendition of The Beatles’ “Yesterday.” I didn’t know Shirley Horn’s singing that well. I’m not a jazz expert, but I like to listen. The DJ said she’d died recently—I hadn’t known that. He said Horn did something with the song that even Paul McCartney hadn’t done—she’d found a new level of difficult emotion in it, is what he said. That was a bold introduction. Then he played it. It’s complex. It has masterful tonal shifts. Her version ripped my heart out.

What that DJ did—helping me into the sound of Shirley Horn and giving just enough context that her sound could move me so powerfully—that’s what a poetry column ought to do.
Originally Published: January 23, 2006

COMMENTS (1)

On May 1, 2008 at 8:25pm Scot Siegel wrote:
Bravo!

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 David  Biespiel

Biography

David Biespiel is the author of  three books of  poems, including The Book of Men and Women (University of Washington Press, 2009). A book of prose, A Thousand Faces, is due out later this year.

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