Monday, October 30, 2006

Things you should never put in a poem

Apparently, there's quite a list. Moon, shard (go figure), love, heart, mother, father, grandmother, cat, dog ... well, you get the idea. Basically, you'll be safe if you eschew (now that's a word you can feel free to use in a poem, along with switchblade) anything with a positive, upbea connotation.

Positive, upbeat -- add those to the list of banned poetry words.

And who are these poetry police, you may ask? Well, Frank Zappa did ask, only he called them the "brain police" in one of my favorite songs when I was a Sunset Strip groupie in the 1960s ... but that's another tale. One basically told in the film Almost Famous. They didn't make the movie about me, but about some kids like my friends, only a lot less blonde and perspicacious (another word you may add to your list of approved poetry terms).

Who are the poetry brain police today? Well, check out this group for a start. Then there's always this group of totalitarians.

My point is that when writing, you should beware such arbiters of "good" and "bad" poetry. Why? Well, one example of a famous, well-published and lauded poet of his time is Robert Penn Warren. Does anyone read his work anymore? Okay, he's still got a page at the Academy of American Poets, but does anyone go there for other than academic reasons?

In fact, does anyone go to the Academy of American Poets site at all except for academic reasons?


  1. You can understand the impulse to "eschew": don't be trite. But it's also the impulse to codify things, nail down right and wrong. The same hopeless enterprise that has turned people into tyrants for eons. We seemed to be fatally wired against ambiquity or understanding relativity.

  2. Rachel,
    I do sometimes go the the Academy of American Poets site -- and I don't know if the reasons are academic! Generally, it's to find a few poems (sometimes, bio-notes too) by/for one or another admired poet (W.S. Merwin being one such). I've not looked up Mr. RPWarren there (and don't anticipate doing so soon); but I digress.

    While I wouldn't meself touch a proscription process with a 10-foot-pole [except perhaps as gnomic exercise], still -- if only it were couched in the form of description [what the speaking poet practices] rather than proscription or perscription [what somebody else should do], I think I can (in theoretical ways) appreciate aspects of the impulse. It's a bit like: indicate everything in the universe that's not in the poem; and when you get to the end of the list, voila! there's your poem. Um, or is it?

    At any rate, allegedly Billy Collins went in for the Don'ts list -- at least to the extent of saying one should not include the word "Chevy" in a poem. Naturally I took this as fair catnip.

    (I wasn't aware of the Buffalo crowd being in such a game, but it can at times hit anyone given to overmuch poetry talk perhaps.)


  3. In some sense everything is subjective and only to be judged indivually by the person that experiences it(what ever it is)
    But in another sense some stuff is just crap and there is alot of crap out there and it is good if there are intelligent people out there to sort out the crap from the not crap. The only problem is some of the intelligent people are crap sorters so we need a another group to sort out the crap from the not crap sorters... and now i have a headache

  4. yeah, who read robert penn warren? or dem poet beings was so cool. fascist word cops. poetry. police. not cool. yer kick ass . good on ya. to hek with them damn fake pretenders. all of 'em nitwits. saying what you can. cannot write. what word to use. man. bunch of deadbeat.s. its too bad , really. total drag. vive le free poem.

  5. PS/

    so here then

    heart is moon is gold. use them word not permitted. go for broke. heart is good. heart is moon. mushy moon. repressed. material come grandma, grandpa! mom! it all be silly. use whatever word the poem want. Love.

  6. Beverly -- an interesting idea, that we're wired against ambiguity. Interesting in that poetry deals in same, and perhaps that inclination to layers of meaning is what makes some people complain about the difficulty of reading it. Perhaps some are more wired against ambiguity than others.

  7. Anonymous6:45 AM

    Interesting post Rachel, and interesting points.

  8. a poet to be named later8:09 AM

    In defense of RPW, I think he achieved the kind of success that most poets truly want, even though they can't admit it. Should we care whether he's been canonized? Is that any measure at all of a poet's success? I don't think so. The canon is as elitist and biased as any other contest or anthology.

  9. True, most poets would like the kind of recognition RPW achieved. And I think we all know, if we've been publishing for any length of time, how little a measure of the worth of a poem is its publication record. I'm reading Edgar Allan Poe and the Jukebox, and what Elizabeth Bishop tossed on the scrap pile is usually as good as the work that has been canonized. Agreed, the canon is elitist and biased, but I think we should aspire to have a better, less biased set of arbiters of the canon. It seems to me we have elitist and biased arbiters of what's good in American poetry because most of the public pays no attention to poetry at all. If they even are aware that it exists as a contemporary art form.