Giving Poetry Another Chance

by Nathan Brown


Salman Rushdie said:

“A poet’s work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it from going to sleep.”

That’s a tall order. But one that might be more important than ever in a culture that is completely saturated with “words.” We are awash in useless information and egregious sensationalism. From the Internet to smart phones. From our clothes, slathered in logos and catch phrases, to the sides of buses wrapped in larger-than-life advertising. While helicopters hover over elementary schools, television anchors repeat all over themselves because they don’t really know anything about what happened yet. And while rangers shut down national parks and mothers go without assistance to buy formula, politicians yack platitudes that they’ve never once meant into a junkyard of microphones.

Look again at Rushdie’s quote. This is why it might be time to give poetry another chance. When it’s on target, poetry cuts to the chase. Maybe even down to the bone. No fat. No fluff. The poet Stephen Dunn puts it more beautifully, and in fewer words (because he is better than I am):

We can go months, even years, without ever being crucially spoken to. The simplest good poem is a small correction of that.

I believe this with all my heart. And Dunn’s poetry in particular has spoken to me, crucially, for many years now. To read his one-page poem “To a Terrorist,” and then find out that it was written years before 9/11? It still chills me to my core. He tried to tell us.

Consider also these powerful words from William Carlos Williams:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

However, at the same time, we need to keep in mind the prize-oriented, academically based “walk out” that occurred early in the 20th century when it comes to the American poetry scene. Marcel Duchamp signed and hung his toilet for that 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York and then, for some reason, poets felt compelled to follow suit. So it’s no surprise that the readership and audience for poetry eventually dropped their interest in the genre like an unread copy of one of Oklahoma’s other, more notorious, publications.

I am done with the argument over whether or not this exodus actually occurred. And I’ve earned more than my share of pep talks from fellow professors about the dangerous line between “high” and “low” art. I’ve heard them. I get it. But I’m with former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser when he says the main difference is that high art needs “interpreters,” go-betweens, to help all the little people understand what the artist “meant.” And I would go further to say that if poets were to begin to write poems people could understand, the whole system would crash, and the critics (often frustrated, or even failed, poets) would be out of a job.

Best I can tell, this is how the system works: poets whose pieces require an interpreter are awarded prizes by those interpreters (who, conveniently, serve as judges for the prizes), and then the award-winners are given tenure in creative writing programs at major universities and small private colleges where young starry-eyed undergrads want to impress them with their work—that will require even more interpretation—because they want desperately to win a prize, and they’re pretty sure this is how they have to go about it. A terrifying downward spiral.

To me, the more dangerous lines turn out to be among certain divisions within the confines of high art itself. For instance: innovative and difficult new work that pushes the boundaries of what has come before (work that might be great, or not, but that is usually met with suspicion), considered alongside the high praise occasionally awarded to slashes and gashes of paint on a canvas that critics later find out was done by an elephant slinging his trunk. If you add into this mix the deliberate smoke-screening of academics using big words in their critiques, like “monological intersubjectivity”—a word that a good friend of mine actually encountered in the classroom at Perkins Seminary in Dallas—I’m left with the simple question: Who cares?

Which reminds me of something Garrison Keillor said once in a column:

The reading aloud of poetry has been shown, time and time again, to be effective at breaking up gatherings of people. Rather than tear gas or pepper spray, many police departments now use Wordsworth. Or T.S. Eliot, that small dark cloud of a poet.

With that, I’ll go back a bit and explain what brought me to poetry’s table to begin with. At eight years of age, I wanted to be John Denver. Not be like him. Be him. Something in his music connected with me on a level I couldn’t have understood at the time. But that connection was intense and genuine nonetheless. And it led to a desire to write my own songs—albeit really, really bad ones—by the time I was 11 or 12. At 15 I began to form angsty garage bands. By my late teens I was playing professionally, in local bands like Harvey and the Wallbangers, all over Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

This led to a stint of touring with larger acts and working as a staff songwriter for a publishing company in Nashville in my early 20s. Parts of it were interesting. Like touring for a while with Tom Wopat (the dark-haired Duke of Hazzard in the original TV series). He was crazy. In a fun way. He would rent Lincoln Town Cars from the airports, but drive them like the General Lee. Within a year or two, the publishing and music business parts of Nashville completely destroyed my love for music. And when I returned to Oklahoma, I didn’t pick up a guitar for five years.

I enrolled in a creative writing masters program at the University of Oklahoma. (And yes, I just bashed creative writing programs earlier in this article. You were hoping I’d steer clear of contradiction as well as controversy?) That was when I encountered George Economou. My favorite cantankerous Greek professor of English who ushered me into a new world of poets and poems I’d not encountered before, like C.P. Cavafy and William Matthews. And these poets then led to the discovery of others, like Stephen Dunn, Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, and Mary Oliver, who led to William Stafford, Tony Hoagland, and Bob Hicok. I credit my conversion to poetry to Stephen Dunn’s poem “At the Smithville Methodist Church.”

I had no idea poetry could be like this.That it could grab you by the throat. Stop you dead in your rushed tracks. Make you cry when no one’s looking. Even make you laugh out loud in coffee shops. Something that would be embarrassing, if one cared what the other patrons of The Red Cup or Shades of Brown think.

I could understand these poems. They didn’t read like an encrypted joke, or an invitation to some party on the East Coast that I found in the trashcan at the end of the hall in the English department. And yet—and this is important—I sensed, on some deep and powerful level, that they were beautifully, uniquely, and masterfully crafted poems. These poets were not elephants slinging paint, like the ones I’d scratched my head over in The Paris Review or The New Yorker. These poems arrived with the care and concern of a true artist who seemed to want to connect with me. And that’s the word of the day: connect. That’s the word that had defined my musical career. The reason I’d wanted to write and perform songs all those earlier years. I wanted my poems to connect with audiences. And so, was I going to pursue the Pushcart and Bakeless literary prizes, the cushy tenured position, and the praises of the Harvard Review’s poetry editor? Or was I going to write poems that would mean something—and maybe even matter—to someone besides a few tweeded-out colleagues, some graduate students (who are faking it anyway), and my mother (who’s never faking it, best I can tell)?

I had no idea poetry could be like this. That it could grab you by the throat. Stop you dead in your rushed tracks.

I guess the answer is obvious. James McMurtry is a good friend of mine, and I consider him one of the best songwriters out there right now. And Stephen King agrees with me. One night McMurty and I sat on the back steps of Momo’s in Austin listening to his son, Curtis, an up-and- coming songwriter in his own right. While on our third glass of malbec each, we talked about how I’d left a lucrative career in folk music and songwriting for poetry. He looked hard at the floor, and without turning his eyes toward me, said: “My god… you found the only step down.” So, when it comes to good medical insurance, new tires for the car, academic tenure, and some kind of retirement plan, I’m not kidding when I say that choosing to connect with a wider audience meant committing financial suicide.

I hope that story lends credibility to what I want to say next. Poets in the business of making sense, and therefore connecting with audiences, while also devoting decades to mastering the craft of words, do not have to contend with the pressures and ideological conflicts of commercial success. Since Nike and Apple are not likely to take out a couple of pages in my next book, you don’t have to worry that I’m beating around the corporate-sponsor bush. I am here at my desk, writing, because I want to say something, and because I believe it is important.

Poetry matters. Still. In a world choking on the growing landfills of “useless information and egregious sensationalism,” poets relentlessly seek to find only the best of all words, and then work tirelessly to put them into the smallest possible space. We fail at times. Some would say often. But when Dunn, Collins, Olds, and Hoagland nail it? The tectonic plates shift. Maybe just a bit. But we feel enough of the shake to remind us that our grandchildren’s world needs us to perk up. And that the beauty of their faces and the earth surrounding us may, in the end, be more than we can bear. But we’ve got to try.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 21. Nov. 01, 2013.