Jan 14, 2010

Conversation and Poetry. Kay Ryan.


Home to Roost - Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More


In her comments yesterday, Brenda casually wondered here about the conversation and poetry, which led me to think about the whole issue once again. There are rumors of a whole "school" of thought about a kind of poetry called "ultra talk." I don't completely understand it, but I think I have enough of an inkling to launch this response.

About conversation and poetry, I guess I'm one of those bombastic old farts who think poetry chisels language, thought, emotion, and experience in ways that even the best conversation cannot accomplish. Sometimes prose has occasional passages that are "poetic," but that's hardly required of the prose writer. So I have to wonder why any poet would want or expect his "poetry" to sound like prose or conversation. If you want that, why not write fiction or memoir? Are they inferior genres?

For survival, I suppose we should preserve conversation; we should keep on talking—well, some people should cut back. Some should buy duct tape. There are many arenas in which we need to be willing to say A is not B; one of those is the poetry business, and this includes the fact that conversation is not poetry.

Yet "conversational poetry," as a category or description, makes perfect sense and is not inherently negative, as much of Frost—mostly the blank verse Frost—should prove, along with hundreds of skillfully wrought free verse poems by dozens of different poets. (Billy Collins, Tony Hoagland, Dorianne Laux, Thomas Lux, Sharon Olds, to name only a few). Of course, the skillful poets are the ones who put the lie to the label "free" in free verse, but that's another treatise.

Look at today’s poem, “Home to Roost,” by current U.S. poet laureate, Kay Ryan. Is conversation ever that terse, that mysterious? What conversation shows such economy of language? And doesn't economy translate to respect for language? Like money, we don’t throw it around. We make it count.

(Unless we’re high up at AIG or GM or Enron; apparently, they talk a lot, mostly in multisyllabic words, for they confuse words with money, so multi is always a good thing. At the top floors, they never say what they mean; that way, they can sneak off with the loot. So are they speaking poems? For those who think poetry is circumlocution, remember that every institution has a secret language. The question is, what is its intent? To deceive? That’s not poetry. It might be law and the corporate world, or even medicine, or the military, or the CIA, or educational jargon, even the jargon about poetry. But it’s not poetry. When good poetry gets dense, it wants us to feel full, not tricked and not broke).

So, back to Kay Ryan. Look at the layers of meaning, beginning with literal chickens, but suggesting and then demanding we notice larger darkness and craziness. This feels a little like Dickinson to me (again), but maybe that’s only because we’ve been talking about her recently.

Also, notice that Ryan does use rhyme, but it’s internal rhyme, not end rhyme. There’s music here; it’s spare, it’s tight, it’s tough, it’s not messing around. But it is music.

I get consternated—that’s my word; don’t touch it—when people want everything they say or do to have great meaning and beauty. It’s something like the art dealer who says, “Well, if you like it, it’s good.” Liar. Although we’ll never reach mathematical precision or universal agreement about what’s good in the arts, simply avoiding the . . . conversation . . . amounts to laziness or deception or cowardice. Our conversation won't be poetry, but would you say we have something better to talk about?

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7 comments:

Brenda's Arizona said...

I read this poem, and I read it as chickens. Nothing more. And maybe they got all together and they became each other, they transformed, or like girls in a dorm, they merged into one, "all together now!"

You are saying there is more in the poem? So often I have to diagram sentences to get to their meaning... shit, this is gonna take a lot of diagramming to get thru your thoughts!

So 'prose poetry' (sigh... Frost, Billy Collins AND Sharon Olds?) is like a photo that has been photoshopped? The ugly is gone, the pretty is prettier, and it can still be called photography?

I'm close to babbling. I think we have some duct tape in a kitchen drawer. Then I am gonna start diagramming your sentences. Should keep me busy for the day!

More, B52!!

BANJO52 said...

Maybe more later, Brenda, but for now:

1. You're doing miraculously well with your cast! Hope you're only annoyed by it and pain free.

2. "like girls in a dorm." Love it!

3. Photoshopped? I was trying to say I LIKE and respect a lot of those three folks, plus the others. Also, I'd distinguish between prose poem and prosaic poetry; it's the latter I . . . wonder about. But a photoshopped poem is an interesting, probably valid thing to worry about. Or is every poem (and good photo) photoshopped?

4. Don't taze me, man. I mean, "Don't diagram me, Brenda."

5. I think Ryan's chickens are scary. Maybe I scare easy?

Paula said...

I had several thoughts about this poem, some obvious - chicks don't fly. Then I thought about someone in a dream, a bad dream. Then I'm sorry to say I Googled it. These days it seems I require the obvious, the literal.

All I can say is that I appreciate the metaphor but mistakes are something I'm vowed to pay less attention to. And why is it that our poet laureates aren't batshit crazy? I want someone with substance abuse problems and multiple divorces, something that reflects the general population. Seriously, if I wanted an anchor I'd head for the harbor and gank one.

altadenahiker said...

The chickens are thoughts, aren't they? Your thoughts at their most prosaic. Your irritating thoughts that peck, peck away at grandeur. Because the sky is just too big sometimes. And so we try to throw the ordinary up there so it doesn't seem so daunting and sublime and horrifying.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Karin, your analogy of chickens to thoughts has opened a whole new door for me. Wow... Have you had days like that, when all the thoughts just cloud the sky or come home to roost all at once?

Banjo - my cast is pretty much a pain. I appreciate your thoughts (or should I say - your chickens).

On to your next poem - hurrah!

BANJO52 said...

Paula, you mean you want Kay Ryan and others to be more obviously crazy? I'm late in replying, but I hope you'll elaborate. I don't know about the mental health of our poet laureates, of course. If living poets are leading the sensationalistic lives of the old masters, there's less said about it.

I think it's an old notion that artists show us their madness so that we feel less alone with our own, or so that we hear and see our madness laid out by someone who can articulate better than we can. Maybe that too is a kind of anchor?

BANJO52 said...

AH, well-said!

I think I was seeing the chickens as bits of darkness, madness, meanness we send up against the bright, rational light of day. Temporarily, they "dark the sun," but in the end they come back to him who sent them up; in the end, sky wins, we lose, stuck with a head full of dark chickens.

Something tells me that Kay Ryan would be furious to hear me make it all that mathematical . . . .

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