WHY THEY DON'T LIKE US

Despite what they might say to our faces, people generally don't like poets. Now, let me quickly explain what I am trying to say. Some time ago, I volunteered to chaperone my son's seventh grade class on a field trip. My roommate on that trip was an executive for a headhunting firm that specialized in industrial hiring. He was fairly young—at least younger than me. He dressed neatly, packed like a careful traveler with his socks in a special compartment, his shirts always neatly folded and so on. He came prepared for the trip, for the long stretches of walking with special orthopedic socks to go with his special orthopedic shoes. I was not sure how it would work out since I have never quite roomed with someone who I might safely call a tad preppy. But he was friendly, very friendly, and we seemed to be hitting it off quite well. Somehow it came out that I was a professor and that was bad and not so bad. But the moment he found out that I was a poet, things changed. . . .

Suddenly all his frat boy instincts began to emerge. At last he had something to pin on me. A poet. A real life poet. Talking about my being a poet became his most reliable way to make conversation. Every joke was about my being a poet. The jokes were mild and quite good natured, but the ease with which he would say after a day of walking up and down with tired children who were filling in booklets in an effort to justify the educational purpose of this fun trip, "So, you must have been inspired today. Any poetic words to share?" I would chuckle and say, "Nope, nothing." He would ask this question at least once, sometimes three times each day for five days. My answer was always the same. Sometimes he would offer a variation, he would even attempt his own mock poem. Like I said, it was all friendly ribbing, but I have to ask, "What was that about?" In a sense, he was dragging out from his arsenal of male banter, the kinds of jokes reserved for weird people, for nerds, for odd folk. For some reason this was how he found himself responding to someone who called himself a poet.

Now, I don't think the man disliked me as a person, but there was something mildly antagonistic about his constant ribbing of me. After all, I can imagine a whole line of humor about his job as a headhunter, but these jokes would not be funny, and anyway, his job was legitimate, familiar and did not have that smell of elitism of being special that being a poet has. Underlying much of his manner and tone was a certain self-deprecating sense of humor. In a sense he was saying less about what he thought of poets, than about what he thought of his relationship with poetry. I think he did this knowingly. He found a way to tell me that he was just not into the poetry stuff, and that people who write poems were from a different world from his own world. Things could have gotten ugly, perhaps, but they did not largely because this was a nice guy, and he was genuinely trying to make me feel comfortable as his roommate. But he was doing so out of a latent, and probably hard to articulate distrust of poets.

Much of this may sound quite unfair, but I think I have a point here. I have, over the years, constructed something of a narrative of the way that people encounter poetry in their lives. I do believe that at some point, the relationship between the individual and the poem/poet undergoes a tragic and radical change that leads to what I would call and passive aggressive distrust of the poet.

Now people will tell you that they appreciate poets. But they will always want to know what kind of poet you are. If you are a modern poet—one of those contemporary poets who write the kinds of poems that they may have had to learn in school, they come to you with a long list of complaints and about you and about your fellow poets.

Here is my narrative in brief.

We begin with sheer pleasure. Nursery rhymes are often quite silly rhyming stories that generally make little sense. But they are lovely and they appeal to our sense of rhythm, our sense of the absurd and in many ways our sense of the peculiar drama of the world. Some of these rhymes are familiar to us, describing in verse things we too would love to do:

Jack be nimble
Jack be quick
Jack jumped over
The candlestick.

Splendid vocabulary and a rhythm that corresponds with the subject matter we are exploring. And even when the narrative is absurd or when the language somehow leaves us nonplused about meaning, we happily hold onto what we can and enjoy the rhyme for its energy.

Tom, Tom the piper's son
Stole a pig and away he ran
The pig was eat
And Tom was beat
And Tom came running down the street.

As children, we enjoy these rhymes. We look at the pictures—if there are pictures to see—and find pleasure in the sound of what we are saying. We learn the words by heart. Nobody asks us why Tom stole the pig. Who cares? Tom just happen to steal pigs. It is what they do. What is a piper? Who knows, and who cares? The drama remains completely accessible and we find pleasure in it.

At that age we even make up our own rhymes. We run around repeating these rhymes, teasing people with our rhymes, laughing at teachers with our rhymes. I remember a friend of mine and me running through our elementary school after class shouting and shaking our nine-year-old bodies:

Pri-ivate lessons
Hey, hey, hey
Pri-ivate lessons
Hey, hey, hey!

This was our extra lesson song. The lessons were grueling, but we ushered in the occasion with our madly pleasurable song. When we discovered limericks, we thought they were the most amazing things: a cluster of rhymes and rhythms that could be funny and that could be about anything we wanted them to be about.

I have seen this giddy pleasure in elementary schools today. When I do poetry workshops with teachers, the most innovative teachers, the ones who are constantly finding complex and sophisticated ways to get students to write are the elementary school teachers. While these bouncy primary school teachers wax eloquent about how "awesome" teaching poetry to children is, the middle school and high school teachers scowl away in the corner, muttering, "Yeah, you just wait till they get older, till they discover cool, till they are no longer cute, till they know what poetry is really about, you will see how exciting and awesome it all is."

And they are right. Something does happen with poetry somewhere in the late middle school years and in high school. The most troubling question is asked of students. It is a question that is rarely asked of elementary school children: "What does this poem mean?" Suddenly, the poem must mean something. And that meaning is supposed to be buried in the poem somewhere. A poem is no longer experienced and enjoyed, it is to be understood and talked about. Of course, there are all kinds of implications lurking around this question and these have to do with issues of understanding, of power, of control and above all, of intelligence. Where a poem may have been enjoyed and responded to viscerally and emotionally, now it had to be responded to intellectually. Meaning. Meaning. Meaning.

When a teacher asks a student what a poem means, the teacher is suggesting that there is a meaning inside the poem. The teacher is also saying that someone knows the meaning of the poem. By dint of him or her asking the question, the teacher becomes the first power broker in the poetry game. The teacher would not ask the question if the teacher did not have an answer in his or her head. In other words, the teacher, too, thinks there is a meaning behind the poem. Often, the conversation unfolds with the student trying his best to make sense of the poem. He offers an opinion and the teacher says, "No, Tony, Susan, what do you think?" A kinder teacher who has already embraced some principles of self-affirmation for the students might say, "That is interesting, Tony, I have not thought of it in that way, but perhaps Susan has another take . . . " proceeding to ask as many students as possible until the "right" answer is arrived at. No one is fooled by the politeness. There is a right answer. It will be marked as such in the exam. The teacher knows the right answer, and the teacher will entertain some conversation for a while, but will eventually offer the right answer. Often, the teacher will get the right answer from reading the right book that lays out all the right answers about the meaning of the poem.

The student, however, has already begun to feel somewhat betrayed by the poem. After a teacher has spent a half hour explaining what a poem means, offering interpretation after interpretation and pulling allusions and devices out of a hat, and magically deciphering the complex of language for the student, it is not unusual for a student to say, "So if she wanted to say that, why didn't she just say that?" And in that instant, something happens between the poet and the student—the poet and the future citizen who is walking around with a hidden distrust for the poet. The student realizes in that instant that someone is withholding information from her. The student understands that somehow language is getting in the way of meaning. The student comes to the understanding that the person who made the poem is smarter, cleverer and decidedly more devious than the student might be. That person has offered a poem so full of obscurities, allusions, difficult diction, and convoluted turns and starts that are hard to follow, all for what? To make their lives miserable, to embarrass them in front of the class. What used to be pleasurable has become a detective game. And the problem is that when one does find the meaning, it often does not feel like it was worth the effort. Consciously or unconsciously, the student or young person begins to form a clear opinion about the poet: She is bright. She knows more than me. She controls the extent to which I will understand what her poem is saying. She is making my life miserable. She has intentionally obscured her meaning so that I have to work hard to grasp it. She is just not my friend.

A good teacher can recognize when this moment occurs and may be able to halt the decay with some suggestion that poets are nice people and that they are not trying to do this. But many, if not most of the teachers went through the same system as the students and always felt the same way about the poet. They take pride in the fact that they have managed to read enough to allow them to speak with authority about the poems. But they also feel that same sense of being embattled and constantly trying to find meaning where meaning is hidden.

The sad tragedy is that many of these students actually find their way to meaning and do well in their essays, do well in articulating the secret of a poem, but they also become poets and many of them assume that the good poem is the one that makes it really hard for the reader to get the poem at once. They rally behind Pound in his celebration of the hard poem. Thus they write poems that are about hiding behind language rather than poems about opening meaning with language. They can't be blamed. They are like second year students in a school that allows hazing. Having been slaughtered and embarrassed in their first years, they look forward to getting back at their bullies through the bullying of the young children.

This is why people often run to poems that are "easy." It is why they will find the pleasure of a good song lyric but not pay much attention to the poet. It is also why when people talk about their favorite poems they talk about those poems that are most easily explained by a teacher. This is why people make jokes about poets. For them, the poet is playing a game. They have long given up on the whole business of trying play that game because they always lose that game. It is likely why people will not give any of the "school" poets much attention, leaving them to folks who think like them and who are bright like them. And many poets enjoy this position a great deal. It makes them feel special, assures them that they are embarked on a vocation that is just not for everyone and that this is not a bad thing, but just a fact of life. For them, the hardness of poetry is just not a bad thing, at all. Indeed it is a good thing, the desired thing.

To be honest, I almost agree with them. I say almost because while I do think that the challenges that can come from a poem can be quite healthy, I don't think the issue of hardness or easiness is what is at stake here. The real problem is that it has somehow seeped into the collective imagination of our society at large that the poet is actually holding back information and obscuring meaning intentionally and is given to trying to seem brighter than the reader, the listener. The sad thing is that while this may be true of many poets, it is not true of most of the poets that I know. Most of the poets that I know are difficult, not so much because they want to make things hard for the reader but because they are trying to express difficult issues and want to do so with accuracy and with the attendant complexity that they believe the subject might deserve. Most of them want to be fresh, they want to come at their ideas in ways that will enliven the reader, make the reader think of things that he or she had never thought of. But that message does not easily penetrate the rupture of that first moment when the question was asked, "What does this poem mean?"

It would be irresponsible of me to lay out what I see as the problem without offering some solution. There are many possible solutions, but I really think that there has to be a way for us to maintain the same giddy quest for pleasure and connection in poems that we see in the younger children in school. Meaning is surely an important pursuit, but the quest for meaning, for getting to the heart of what a poet has offered is often undermined by the very pressure to find the meaning that I have spoken about. The best "readings" of poems tend to come from people who have found a way to connect with the poem and who have come to the view that the poet is very interested in communicating—in finding fresh ways to pass information to others. So I suggest that every course in poetry should be supplemented by a session in poetry appreciation—a forum in which young people are encouraged to read a lot of poems, and to simply enjoy them, and try to find ways to discover connections with at least one of the many poems they will read.

Maybe poets are not disliked. Maybe it is worse than that. It may well be that people don't even care that poets exist. Neither of these possibilities will stop us from writing poems. However, I can imagine a better world, a world that actually exists in many places: a world in which the poet is valued for the right things—for the capacity to see the word and to use language to turn that sight into something that moves us and challenges us and gives us pleasure. Perhaps, then, poets could be as ordinary and knowable as headhunters, psychologists, dry-wall specialists, and leather workers.

Originally Published: April 12th, 2006

Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...