October 20, 2005

Poetry Post

Author's Note: Here's another post that I made on the discussion board for my literature class. Our study has shifted from literary fiction (primarily short stories) to poetry. As one may imagine, the study of poetry has created somewhat of a discontented stir amongst the students. Now, when there's discontent going on I'm usually inclined to be in on it. The following is a response to a post by my fellow student Aaron V. in which he discussed his frustrations with poetry in general:

I appreciate that Aaron has articulated his idea about poetry being an esoteric club, one which requires specific training in order to enter. It is apparent to me that once one is trained to understand poetry they often feel compelled to enforce upon themselves an appreciation for it. This is most pointedly true for me in my own experience. For instance, today I was flipping through the most recent issue of the Dialogue publication at Calvin. Indeed, I was actually reading the poems and feeling their effect (well, some of them at least). Upon realizing that I was getting into it, I started to feel guilty about a previous interaction with the Dialogue. That previous experience was as follows:

One evening when I was a freshman living in RVD I was hanging out with some friends of mine at the smoke pit*. We discovered a copy of the Dialogue that someone had left behind and it spurred a conversation about the usefulness of such a publication. Now I of all people should have at least been able to play devil's advocate and stick up for a publication of the arts (as I have frequented the Spoelhof basement for many classes here at Calvin). Instead, I found that I much preferred to bash it as a bunch of lofty b.s. produced by people who were either trying to fool the reader into thinking they were deep, or had already fooled themselves. Well, the combination of the presence of lighters and a large, sand-filled ash basin was too much to resist and the pages of the Dialogue were soon being consumed by flames of protest.

Or we were just being jackasses via an insensitive display of, as Aaron would put it, ignorant frustration. As I said, the memory of that incident caused me to feel some guilt today, but that feeling of guilt was soon replaced by another thought...a question. Have I fooled myself? The various ways I have interacted with the Dialogue represent two distinct mindsets (a.k.a. perspective or point-of-view). My current perspective is more open-minded to poetry, but does that prevent my previous mindset from being equally valid? Now instead of feeling guilty I was a bit unsure, scared that I might be one of those people who is compelled to be "into" something just because they know how to; like Aaron said, a part of something bigger than themselves. It is certainly comforting to be able to reassure one's cognitive capacities by exercising skill in reading/understanding poetry. I fear that the effect or meaning - possibly subconsciously self-enforced - that some of the poems have may be an outlet of that reassurance.

This, I believe, points to the fact that our respective realities are a construct of whatever mindset we happen to be in at that point in time. Here's a somewhat hypothetical generalization: I once found poetry to be frustrating and useless, now I find it to be interesting and meaningful. Now, when I am confronted with someone who finds poetry to be frustrating and useless I think that they are wrong. But they are me. Their ideas are valid, and I must respect that (in the same way that I didn't respect the ideas of the other side when I participated in the Dialogue burning). My point is this (and I would imagine that Aaron may agree); I call into question the tradition of enforcing poetry on students as being a good thing. In my experience, many poems are primarily successful only in polarizing the reading audience. Some people don't get it and immediately tune it out, while others revel in their ability to get it and perpetuate what makes them feel better than the people who don't by writing more poetry.

Granted, this is an extremely cynical conceptualization about poetry in education, and you probably shouldn't buy into what I'm saying. Honestly, however, it is the way (or at least a way) that I am inclined to think. Maybe a year from now my mindset will have changed again and I can have an argument with my former self and prove that jerk wrong once and for all.

*Ok, I better qualify this a little bit for fear of misinterpretation. Many of my friends at Calvin are smokers, or at least smoke occasionally. In dealing with that, I have found that some of the most genuine social interaction in all of my experiences at Calvin has occurred while hanging out at the smoke pits. Unfortunately a resultant of this was the breaking of a promise that I once made as a very young kid to my parents (I remember speaking the actual words), "I will never smoke even a single cigarette." Ah, I'm beginning to understand the relevance of the cliché "never say never." Yes, I have sampled a cigarette or two, but I am under no delusions about the negative health implications of smoking, not to mention its potential for addiction, so I've tried to keep it under the auspices of responsible freedom. So please, please, please don't call me in a giant frenzy about how evil smoking is because I already know that you are right.

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