Monday, January 22, 2007

A Powerhouse Poet

I am not generally a fan of poetry. Too often in my reading history, when I've tried to broaden my horizons, I've wound up feeling like a kid forced to drink cod liver oil--I know it's supposed to be good for me but am utterly convinced that the suffering far outweighs any possible benefits.

What's my gripe, you ask?

When I take the time to dissect my dissatisfaction, I find the lingering bitter tang of imprecise, featherweight words and turns of phrase whose ambitions far outweigh their impact.

I was planning to put an example here--taken from award-winning poetry--of the gutless, breathless prose I find so unpleasant. But in the end, I felt lousy trashing a writer who's actually poured his heart into the work. I could, instead, write something I find representative of the work I'm describing, but in the end I'd be running the risk of building a gutless strawman. Instead, for now, I'll leave the work to your imagination. If you read any poetry at all, you'll quickly find what I'm talking about.

The point of the example would have been that, in too many poets' hands, noodle-limp obscurity is actually a badge of honor. It allows the writer to claim more meaning than he ever intended to impart, and it allows for the sense that only the brilliant anointed truly 'get it.'

Bullshit, I say.

Clarity. Strength. Precision. All jobs one for any good writing. Novels. Rhetoric. Screenplays. Poetry. There are no exceptions.

There are of course, exceptions to the seeming dominance of the victory-by-waffling-obscurity gang of poets. One who strikes me as particularly impressive is James Dickey, author of Deliverance. Yes, that Deliverance, the gap-toothed, banjo-playing, squeal-like-a-pig Deliverance.

I've been reading The Whole Motion, Collected Poems, 1945-1992 and becoming more and more convinced, based on the power and precision of James Dickey's writing, that poetry isn't a hopeless endeavor.

Here is a sample, the opening of a poem of his called Adultery:

Note the precise language, the building of mood with exacting detail. In a few short lines, he's crafted a motel room we can see and the tension of guilt we can feel. The closest he comes to telling us how to feel is the 'sad' comment. But that editorial is more than forgivable because he backs it up. He proves it.

I can't recommend his writing highly enough.


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