by: Nan Lundeen
For you, what is good poetry? Our educational system lumps poets together much as we lump music by style into jazz, blues, country. So, with poems. For instance, we have the beats, we have the lyrical, the confessional, we have the metaphysical, we have contemporary (whatever that is), and those who wouldn’t touch a poem with a sidelong glance, stick poetry into one category: unfathomable.
“I don’t get it,” they say. Well, there’s a lot to “not get” among the poets, but for me, there’s also beauty, sustenance, and nurturance for the soul.
My friend Jenny Munro recently heard North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti read and liked him so much she bought his book, partly because his poetry was understandable. In the past, she hadn’t cared for poetry because it baffled her.
I am a fan of understandable poets. Sharon Olds took the 2013 Pulitzer for her book, Stag’s Leap. Her work shows us that brilliant talent need not be opaque. Instead, talent can glow like a wild animal’s eyes in black woods.
Olds writes a painfully personal book about the loss of her husband of 32 years through divorce. She excels at writing about the body, yet it is adeptly woven with meaning beyond the physical, clear yet fully nuanced with layers of meaning. I looked for a line or two to quote for you so that you could see what I mean, and the brilliance became even more evident to me because I could not choose a line or two, could not even choose the title of a poem or two, because the poems are whole, of one cloth, and the book is whole, a cloth trailing love, its celebration, its blessings, its loss.
Poets who are brilliant and understandable abound, my fellow writers, and I rejoice to find them. Maxine Kumin moves me with her work’s stark beauty. Mary Oliver’s every poem astounds because she sees nature anew from her own, surprising perspective. Billy Collins presents everyday life in a simple and profound way. And Maya Angelou—who could not be uplifted by her spirit.
Some splendid poetry sticks in the brain like cockleburs used to stick to my father’s overalls. I heard Anne Sexton, one of the confessional poets of the 1960s, read at Western Michigan University. I cannot forget her lines about her daughter in which she refers to her as a stringbean. I’ve written poems for my daughter, but have never written anything to touch the immortality of Sexton’s lines about her little girl.
Writing your own stuff can lock you into a sort of groove—a lock step approach that’s difficult to break. Some days, writing feels like slogging through a bog, when what I want to do is ride up and down on a teeter-totter with a new author in a new (for me) genre.
Discovering poets that appeal to you can give you that joyful, teeter-tottering gift.
this column first appeared in the SCWW Quill