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Journal, Day Four
On Music, Rhythm, Image, and the Other Essentials I Want to Find in Poetry
I was chatting with fellow queer Chicano poet Lorenzo Herrera y Lozano at a coffee shop at St. Edward’s University in Austin (there’s something about these college campus spaces that encourages deep thought and conversation), where we were bemoaning the fact that contemporary song lyrics, in either Spanish or English, are rarely as complex or textured as songs used to be. Not that either of us are old enough to remember music introduced to the public in another era, but through our respective families (his from Chihuahua and mine from Michoacán) we were exposed to the gorgeous songs belted out by Libertad Lamarque, Chelo Silva, Lola Beltrán, Las Hermanas Huerta, Las Jilguirillas, Lucha Villa, María de Lourdes, and Amalia Mendoza—among many others—whose beautiful voices gave life, intensity, and strength to the poetry of the songwriting.
The thread of this conversation took us to talk about film, to lionizing el Cine de Oro, the classic era of Mexican cinema and the films of María Felix. I brought up the classic American black and white cinema and the films of Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, and Joan Crawford. We snickered at what gay Chicanos we were, able to list off Diva after Diva on both sides of the border. We concluded “they don’t write songs like they used to” and “they don’t write dialogue like they used to,” with a strange sense of nostalgia for a period of art we remembered from childhood—a nostalgia we absorbed from our families.
The shift then to declare that “they don’t write poetry like they used to” was inevitable. I made it. But that wasn’t exactly what I meant. I was making an evaluative comparison, rather. I identified good songwriting and scriptwriting because the language engaged me, entertained me, and transported me to a place both sensory and sophisticated. When I teach poetry to beginning students, I ask the question, “What makes a poem a poem?” What allows us to look at a piece of paper with print and declare, “That’s a poem?”
With a bit of coaxing, we come to some general conclusions: poems have line breaks, poems use figurative language, poems have rhythm and music, poems work with imagery. We spend the rest of the course building on these key statements and reading work that challenges that checklist. In other words, we seek complexity, and poems that spiral in and out of these strategies and devices. This keeps the discussions dynamic and interesting. I also encourage students to attend poetry readings, to listen to how poets bring their language to life. I myself attend at least a few a month, given my busy schedule, because I’m always curious about how a poet performs and interprets the musicality of his or her work. But herein also one of my biggest disappointments—when I hear no music in the work, either on the page or on the lips.
Beginning students sometimes simply chop their prose. They’ll make the writing look like a poem, and they’ll call it a poem. And eventually, once they’re introduced to alliteration, anaphora, simile, etc., they’ll begin to experiment and play with the language so that the writing takes shape and becomes art—skilled, tooled, structured, and intelligent without losing its sentiment, its purpose for being introduced to the world. But these are beginning students. They’ll learn and they’ll place into practice that knowledge. What then is the explanation behind the flat, choppy, uninspired poetry I often hear delivered by poets with one or two or more published books? It seriously boggles the mind. I’m sitting there, attentive as best I can be, wondering if these poets don’t need a refresher, or a reminder even, of prosody and its many handy devices that are the privilege of poetry. Sometimes I want to scream toward the stage, “Can you toss me a simile?” “Can I please have another hard C word?”
And I’m reminded about why I love those old songs and those old movies. They don’t simply create a lyric or a scene—they craft it, coming across as thought-out and conscious of an equally intelligent audience. There’s a great responsibility in art. And I’m also a believer that anyone can create it. Art is a matter of talent, but it is also a matter of knowledge and experience. Students can learn. Which is why I have them read and attend readings—they also begin to distinguish and discriminate between good writing and weak art.
Of course everyone has a right to write poetry. And I’m pleased many are doing it. It’s lazy writing I can’t stand, especially from our more mature and experienced poets. That’s who I’m directing this critique to, not the beginning writers who I trust will only improve with practice, revision, and raising the standard higher with each poem. The key is in becoming aware of one’s own writing—in not being satisfied that with the designation “poet” everything that pours out of the pen is poetry. Not every poem merits publication. And not every poem is pretty to enough to take to the pageant, i.e. the stage. Never be afraid to be your toughest critic, but do be afraid of becoming complacent. The truth is, you can fool yourself, but not the rest of the world. Certainly not my students. Read, write, and re-write until you’ve stripped the paper of mediocrity. When you get to good, aim for better. Young poets, save yourselves from having someone declare, “They don’t write poetry like they used to.”