Ah, Kwame. I’ve missed your straight-arrow succinctness, your keen eye, your unflinching aim. You never fail to immediately engage me. And I’m intrigued by the idea you’ve introduced. However, I am not so willing to grant amnesty to poems that confound me or the poets who pen them. In fact, I detest those inscrutable little nuggets of fleeing meaning. I have worked tirelessly to equip myself with all the emotional, cultural and technical tools I need to understand every poem ever written (I ordered them during a late-night TV binge--they came with a really cool set of ginzu knives), and I will not be bested by some stealthily giggling wordsmiths touting themselves as “language” poets. The very moniker suggests an unquestioned mastery--”language” poets. What are the rest of us using in our poetry? Ham sandwiches? Baby ducklings?

You say, “...a part of me does like the idea that sometimes poems don’t want to have meaning and that somewhere out there, there are people who find pleasure in the absence of meaning.” I’ll grant you that. But I think those people rejoicing about the absence of meaning are the poets writing those little ditties, and the thousands of hangers-on who love them. These are the poets who copy bus schedules and give them a title. They write poems consisting only of names of deodorants that were available at Woolworth’s in October of 1955. They dare to introduce a piece by saying “I wrote this on an odd Sunday in winter, using only three fingers of my left hand and writing with one eye taped shut. You’ll notice that the whole poem is composed of every third letter in the word “whirligig.” Now, if you’ll excuse me, I will be shouting the poem from another room. In Swahili.”

I am convinced that these tricksters know exactly what they are doing (nothing) and count on us being convinced that they are doing it all.

I used to be one of those pretenders, nodding soulfully while some wordsmith dramatically chanted his grocery list into a staticky microphone. I’d encounter the language-driven flava-of-the-month and turn the page upside down looking for meaning; I’d read backwards, sleep with the poem resting on my head, sneak up on it when it wasn’t looking. I was convinced that if I couldn’t grasp the worth of a poem something was wrong with me--I had failed as a student of the canon. So I was content to wait on revelation. While secretly hissing “What the hell...?,” I clawed my way through three-word sonnets and poems shaped like bears. I nodded knowingly and soulfully. Meanwhile, the creators of all this deepness laughed all the way to the bank. (You may take a moment to ponder the idea of a poet with enough money to open a bank account.)

I uncovered this words-too-deep-for-thou scam when I was asked to introduce someone whose poetry utterly mystified me. I felt small and unworthy. This person has a fandom that is fierce and protective of her/his unquestioned brilliance. (Sorry about the gender-waffling, but I’m being VERY careful here. One of his/her dedicated posse could stalk me and douse me with a steaming chai latte.) I studied the person’s work dutifully and encountered crazed capitalization and random hiccuping. I went to see said person. No clues there. I approached said person’s posse--when I began to ask questions, they stiffened and closed ranks around said person. They sniffed dolefully at my ignorance like a salesperson on Rodeo Drive after you’ve questioned the price of something with no visible price tag: If you’re supposed to know, know.

I then widened my query, challenging everyone who touted the value of language poetry to give me just a surface explanation: “Tell me what it does for you.” I heard endless variations of “The meaning is primal, like breathing. Open, and it will enter you.” When the questions became pointed and more insistent, their inner-Rodeo Drive diva made her appearance: Perhaps this just doesn’t come in your size.

Well, bull bits. I have never breathed a bus schedule, or been entered by a pig-Latin sestina. People who make their livings serving up this dribble count on our egos to sustain them. We’ve rather sit through 33 minutes of silence entitled “Noise” or 12 pages of white space called “Black” than admit we don’t know what the hell’s going on.

By the way, there’s nothing going on. Nil. Nada. Zero. The emperor is buck-naked, and the throngs lining the parade route are applauding his fashion sense.

(Meanwhile, HI HARRIET! I’ve been aching for you, unable to post because I’ve been traipsing the landscape, doing the poetry thang. The chaos began in February, when all black poets seem to be busy for some reason (ahem), then in March I was a woman poet and now in April I’m a poet poet. In the past few months, I’ve been to Alaska, Kansas, Florida, Iowa, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Indiana, DC, Colorado, North Carolina and Washington. The minute I leave Denver, where I’m currently poised to fling myself into the swirling cauldron that is AWP, I head for Houston, Long Island, Massachusetts, Washington again, and Oregon. In May, I blissfully collapse to pray over my new manuscript, hoping that no editors realize that most of it was scribbled in feverish fits, 35,000 feet up, between sips of tepid caffeinated fluid and gummy mouthfuls of cheddar pretzels.)

Originally Published: April 8th, 2010

Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017), winner of an NAACP Image Award and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall...