Friday, December 15, 2006

For the Willing if Unenthusiastic

You probably know someone who generally likes poetry, but doesn’t read it much. That’s already pretty good since so many dislike it, are afraid of it or feel alienated by it, or think it’s either all flowers or funerals. It’s true that sitting down to read poetry is an investment of time and concentration and unless the reader walks away satisfied, next time he may just turn on the tv instead.

But there are some poets who appeal in different ways to lukewarm readers. Here are the ones I can come up with. Any other suggestions? (Why can’t I come up with any women here? One might consider Mary Oliver, who's quite accessible, but whether you like her or not you have to admit she is “poetic” in a way that may turn some readers off. Forget Dickinson, forget Plath, forget Olena Davis and Jorie Graham, forget Brock-Broido. . . Ok, I thought of one: Jane Kenyon.)

Edward Lear: Most people read limericks and "The Owl and the Pussycat" and hopefully "The Akond of Swat" as children. I once had friends pass this book around and read limericks at a little birthday gathering (for me) in my office. They enjoyed it. Sincerely.

There was an old Person of Chester,
Whom several small children did pester;
They threw some large stones, which broke most of his bones,
And displeased that old person of Chester.

Charles Bukowski: Funny, raunchy, real life. At least somebody’s real life. Bukowski looks with humor and honesty at ordinary situations. I would advise against reading too much in one sitting, but it’s refreshing in doses. Here's one.

Charles Simic: Surreal and funny, and not unsophisticated. Weird images, personification of the inanimate (“here come my night thoughts on crutches”), and unexpected dialogue. For the unenthusiastic, I’d stay away from his book of prose poems The World Doesn't End, though it’s excellent, and go with any other collection. Here’s the beginning of “Late Call:”

A message for you,
Mouse turd:

You double-crossed us.
You were supposed to get yourself
For the sake of Truth…

Who, me?

Russell Edson: You’d think if someone were insecure with poetry they would be turned off by prose poems. Well, don’t call them ”prose poems.” Just say, I got you this book of weird bedtime stories. I keep “A Chair” framed in a collage near my desk, but if you want an example of an Edson poem with a little more action, try “Fire is not a Nice Guest,” which begins -
I had charge of an insane asylum, as I was insane. A fire came, which got hungry; so I said you may eat a log, but do not go upstaris and eat a dementia praecox. I said, insane people, go into the atic while a fire eats a kitchen chair for breakfast. But fire wanted a kitchen curtain. . .”

Ted Kooser: Accessible, unpretentious language with a positive vibe and democratic appeal. Here are some poems.

Haiku: Haiku are not “hard to get” and are so short they wouldn’t scare anyone away. You don’t get a few lines into them and start wondering what the hell it’s all about or rolling your eyes at the $100 words. I recommend The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson & Issa. Here’s a Basho:

it’s not like anything
they compare it to –
the summer moon.


Nic Sebastian said...

Sharon Olds. Accessible but thought-provoking. Some good shock value too. Her "Strike Sparks" is a Selected Poems culling -- some of her very best. I read her after Plath's Ariel recently -- what a relief! Heh.

SarahJane said...

Thanks, Nic. Olds is amazing. Choosing would depend on whom you're choosing for. My father, for example, will read poetry, but I doubt he'd get far with Olds. My mother, who likes cummings, would go nowhere with Olds.

S. Thomas Summers said...

accesible male poets: Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, James Harrison, S. Thomas Summers (HAHA).

females: don't count yourself out...students will be doing term papers on you someday!!

SarahJane said...

earth to scott....!

Anonymous said...

And thanks for the Russell Edson tip! I *love* that excerpt — I'm going to look him up.

Have you heard of Denise Duhamel? If you like Edson, you might like her, too. She's on my next shopping list.

Jessy said...

Don't forget Richard Brautigan. I would put him at the top of a list of poets who poetry-dislikers like.

SarahJane said...

Arlene -
i do know duhamel. She's fun, but not one of my favorites. I do like how her poems develop so unexpectedly

you are so right. he is adorable.
I'm going to give him his own little entry.


Anonymous said...

Wislawa Szymborska, Carol Ann Duffy and Liz Lochhead are all women, all very good writers, and all quite accessible. At the same time, they manage to be intelligent, humorous and profound. Quite an achievement!

SarahJane said...

szymborska is an especially great suggestion. thx

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