OH, JUST LET THEM PLAY

A most articulate curmudgeon poet complained several issues ago in Poetry, that there were just too many people writing poetry. He lamented the glut of poetry on the market and blamed the proliferation of MFA program for this state of affairs. He went on to say that in the last few years he had found only a handful of poets worth reading. His solution: find a way to ban people from writing poetry. He ran out of space before he could lay out clearly his program for the culling of the poet herds in the Western world.

I imagined, though, that his plan would involve preparing a list of the acceptable poets and establishing a quota for the number of books of poems they would be allowed to publish in a given year. I imagined also, that he would arrange to have a very clearly established limit on the number of poetry books that could be published in a given year. He would reduce MFA programs to a very manageable number of only the very best and somehow convince the students already enrolled in MFA programs to change their degree to something quite safe like Composition and Rhetoric. This would keep them further away from any poetry—a taste of which could awaken in them the misguided need to return to writing poems. He would target all the community writing programs and order them shut down. Grants for writing workshops would be redirected into healthy and useful pursuits like sports and music appreciation.

I have to say, though, that I read his column with a sense of guilt. He was talking to me. He was telling me that I was part of the problem. It is true that I had quit directing an MFA program for a while, so I could not be blamed for the MFA factory product that really annoyed him. But I was certainly running around the state of South Carolina telling people that everyone should write a poem at least once in his or her life. Yes, it was me preaching the good news of poetry and suggesting that poetry was for everyone. Not for everyone to read, but for everyone to write. I was asking business people, lawyers, tax collectors, short order cooks, and even novelists to write poems. And now he was letting me know the damage I was causing him and the rest of the world. I was part of the problem: too many bad poets.

I had to admit also that I entertained many aspiring poets in my office and on the telephone and at workshops all over the country and in fact outside the country. I was inviting people to write sonnets, haiku, sestinas, and confessional verses while giving them an impossibly varied range of sure-fire workshop exercises that I had pulled from so many books on the subject. I had invented my own workshop exercises. And I had started with children. I was going to grade schools and getting little children to rhyme, to make up stories and put them in a form that I promised them was verse. It was a matter of time before I would he hauled up before a council to explain what I had done to fill the world with bad poetry.

But it got worse. Not only was I encouraging ordinary people to write poems, but I was actually writing far too much poetry for any one person to be writing. And what was worse, I was publishing these collections and hoping people would read them.

I asked myself whether he was exaggerating the damage that all this activity of mine would be causing. For him, too much poetry dulled the ability of people to see what good poetry really is. With so much poetry out there, it was impossible to know where the good stuff could be found. It would be totally unreasonable to expect anybody to go searching through the shelves of bookstores to find the few gems among a crowd of very bad poetry. But the greatest sin was that people would start to have the idea that anyone could do what only well-trained, gifted visionaries and wordsmiths could do properly. At best I was leading people into a false sense of their own ability as artists and at worst I was encouraging bad art to be inflicted on the world.

Well, I am guilty. I am guilty as sin. I did it, and I continue to do it. But why? I doubt that it is a negative reaction to the elitism inherent in his attitude and position. My egalitarian sensibilities are well-honed but they remain committed to very pragmatic things like several square meals a day, good jobs, a roof over the head, and access to art—access to art, mind you. No, I do it because I have come to see the business of writing poetry as in many ways connected to the idea of playing a sport. I think participating in some sort of sport is healthy, enjoyable, and extremely entertaining for everyone involved. I have never imagined, however, that everyone should believe that he or she will become a professional athlete or would even care to be one. But even the most amateur of athletes can appreciate a good game and can find some joy and sense of fulfillment in playing the game, at whatever level.

Americans should understand what I am saying here. A hallmark of the American Dream is for children to imagine that they will become world class at some sport or the other. Aided by the vain imaginings of parents who have seen the great work done by the parents of the Williams' sisters and Tiger Woods, these children cannot be blamed for believing that even they could be both President and a figure skating legend at the same time. We know that 99.9 percent of these children will not go on to be presidents or great athletes. What keeps them going is the uncertainty about which will be the one to make it. But at some point, it becomes quite clear that a future in pro sports is out of the cards for most of these people. Does that mean that these folks should stop playing the sport? Hardly. Does that mean they cannot enjoy the sport? I can't imagine why it would. So why not poetry?

It is good for you. It allows you the capacity to think of how language works. It pushes you to be aware of the dynamics of the senses. It can lead us to see the world with care. It compels us to start to search for beauty and meaning in the things around us. It engages the motions and the intellect. It can be quite cathartic even as it serves as an intellectual exercise. It offers pleasures that may not be easily defined—the sound of words, the music of meter, the complexity of wit. It is part of an ancient and timeless tradition that has been part of human experience for as long as anyone can imagine. It is riddled with allusions and cultural meanings that proliferate all language used in society. It is a great way to impress lovers, spouses, friends, and enemies. It becomes a splendid and reliable marker of time, of important occasions and the emotional journey of the individual. More people than we imagine have the sense that the poem is a considered and stylized way of expressing ideas in a manner that will be memorable and beautiful. And here I am not talking about reading poems, but about writing poems. So why must the world be deprived of this opportunity?

My curmudgeon poet, I realize, is not a hater, just a man who has read more poetry than he wants to. He has reviewed more books of poems than he cares to. He has read one too many reviews of poems and is convinced that no one is keeping watch, no one is doing quality control, no one is standing at the gate. He is worried that there are no fresh thoughts emerging. A great Jamaican deejay used to chant, "Sing annadda song for me..." as he lamented the sameness of all the new hits coming on the airwaves. But our poet, I am sure, would not want people to be deprived of the chance to simply make poems and to reap the benefits of making poems.

I hope not. But he might be convinced if I pointed out to him that the more people write poems, the more likely that they will be to share his high taste for the art. It is not unlike, say, classical music. Until I saw my children rehearsing classical pieces for their orchestras, I had no useful way of fully grasping the nuances and complexities of much of classical music. Hearing them move from the horrible screech of beginners, to the delicately balanced nuances of musicians, and observing the casual intelligence with which they spoke about various pieces of music, taught me that they are far more appreciative of the best of classical pieces because they have had to learn to play many pieces in their short lives. I never had formal lessons in music, and I know that a great part of my engagement with classical music has been affected negatively by this gap in my life. And yet, having played in several bands, having learned to play a guitar from friends and by my own efforts, I have come to appreciate better what is happening in the work that musicians do.

So yes, curmudgeon poet, the world must write poems. I will continue to walk the streets and say this to everyone. I will continue my crusade as long as I can or until you send your poetry police to come and arrest me and lock me up in a cell. And even there, I will encourage my fellow inmates to write haiku in their minds and declaim them to the heavens.

Okay, that last ending was a tad over the top, but I will continue to encourage the sport of writing poetry. It is good for you, notwithstanding the curmudgeon poets of our time.

Originally Published: April 11th, 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)...