Kwame Dawes is the author of fourteen books of poetry and many books of fiction, non-fiction and drama. His collection, Hope’s Hospice, will appear with Peepal Tree Press in May of 2009. He is Distinguished Poet in Residence at the University of South Carolina where he directs the SC Poetry Initiative and the University of South Carolina Arts Institute. Kwame Dawes is the programming director of the Calabash International Literary Festival that takes place each May in Jamaica. Dawes recently teamed up with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to create among other things, a multimedia Web site called “HOPE: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica.” The interactive site pairs his poetry with music, essays and video from people living with the disease and those working in the field of HIV/AIDS.
Lines of poetry by Kwame: Culture is flux. Flux is culture. Absolute spirit. / Is spirit absolutely true? Heart is not history. Heart of stone. / Heart is the fire caught-up within my bones.
I Have a Problem with That
A famous writer of non-fiction, known for his books about crossword puzzles, observed something about poetry that fascinated me. First, I should say that this writer sees poetry as something beautifully specialized; precious, even, and he sees in poetry a way to understand the value of the crossword puzzle. This man is convinced that the nonlinearity of the crossword puzzle, its very eschewing of narrative, and its pointlessness is central to what makes it so important, so valuable in our society where the story holds sway, where narratives dominate the way we view the world. So he said something quite fascinating to me. And what he said about poetry was what stayed with me despite the many pages of his I read. He said that one of the reasons that Billy Collins was the most popular poet in American was because his poetry is really prose with a few additional line breaks. I am not quoting him verbatim, but I am quite certain that I am extremely close to doing so. I read the sentence again and again. The statement started to sound like a compliment to Billy Collins, but turned out to be something of a put down. Collins was popular and commonplace because he is a prose writer who has learned the trick of “line breaks.” Let me finish his argument and then I will get back to this thing about Billy Collins. His point was that crossword puzzles work like the best poems. Time stops when you do a crossword puzzle. Sure, there is a beginning, middle, and end to the process of completing the puzzle, but this is not a pattern of narrative but a pattern of process. The puzzle of a meditative thing, a thing of deep contemplation and something that ultimately creates in us a state of mind that can be addictive, consuming, and utterly useless. It engages the intellect, but it also engages the emotions where the emotions are serenity, quiet contemplation, and the shared pleasure of accomplishment. It is in this sense, I think he was saying, that crossword puzzles are like poetry.
I have a problem with all of this.
But I got hung up with what he said about Billy Collins. Now, I am not really here to defend Billy Collins, but I realize that this famous writer really cannot have read much of Billy Collins, and more than that, he has a very flawed understanding of what makes a poem a poem. In a sense, he was saying that Collins does not write poetry, that he is not really a poet, and that is why he is popular. This must be wrong.
I realize that what he is saying about Collins is that he is accessible. What he calls prose is text that is accessible and easily understood. And since Collins is accessible he can’t be a poet. What he does is not poetry. The logic goes, then, that poetry – real poetry – is not accessible. It is difficult. It is nonlinear, it does not make immediate sense, and is, ultimately, like the best crossword puzzle, something that has to be worked out. For this man, it seems, the pleasures of poetry rest in the satisfaction that one gets when solving a challenging crossword puzzle.
But to make his point he calls what Billy Collins does prose pretending to be poetry. And this really has got me thinking about how we came to such a place with poetry. He might as well have said that Collins is simply not deep. And deep is what poets try to do.
I have a problem with this.
I think one day we went to school and were given a grand shock. Someone – most likely a teacher – told us that poems had meaning. And this disclosure was monumental. Of course, we probably always thought that poems had meaning, but we never thought about it – not really. But the moment the teacher let us know that poems have meaning, everything changed. You see, several things happened to us when we were told this thing. First of all, the context for the disclosure was one in which the teacher was not merely letting us know that poems had meaning, but that we should know what the meaning is and we should be able to convey that meaning.
Well, we thought, if the poem has meaning and if the teacher is asking us what this meaning might be, there are a couple of things we can conclude about this situation. The first is that the teacher is asking us this because the teacher knows what the meaning is. Teachers rarely asked questions that they did not have the answer to. Now a teacher might ask, “Did you do your homework?” And we can fairly assume that the teacher asks that question because the teacher does not know and wants to know. But that kind of question from a teacher is rare, and if your teachers were anything like my teachers, even that question did not fall into the category of things the teacher does not know and is asking the student to help them understand. No, my teachers knew I had not done my homework which is why they were asking the question. But when the teacher asks what does the poem mean, the teacher, we know, knows the meaning of the poem. So this is the first thing we understand.
The second thing we understand is that the teacher is presuming that it is possible that we don’t know what the meaning of the poem is. This presumption is built into the very question. And since this is the assumption, then it is clear that this meaning exists somewhere, and somehow, we have to find a way to grasp that meaning and convey it. And when the teacher points us to the “text” to find the answer, we then see this poem as central to our problem. The poem is the thing that holds the secret to its meaning. And if the poem is not by Billy Collins, we are in trouble. And even if the poem is by Billy Collins, we are still in trouble because what may seem self-evident to us, may actually not be so self-evident. That is what happens when a teacher asks a question.
But there is more to this disturbing situation. At some point during the process of working through the idea of meaning, it becomes quite clear that what the teacher is asking is what did the poet mean by what is in the poem. That is what the teacher is asking. And for the first time, the poet looms large in our minds. And this is quite a disturbing moment. There are no good ends to this scenario. Invariably, the mess of trying to decipher meaning will lead to some clumsy conclusions about what the poet meant. And when we are finished with the messy business of solving the puzzle, even if we do not say it out loud, we will inevitably think, “Why didn’t they just say that, then? Why did they have to make it so hard for us to understand?” You will notice then, that what we start to feel about the poet is not going to be pleasant. In fact, we can actually start resenting the poet and by extension, the poem. The teacher, of course, we have always resented.
I am convinced that the famous writer of crossword-puzzle contemplation was in such a classroom and came to think of poetry as a puzzle to be solved. And this is why he is so suspicious of Billy Collins. He can’t be a real poet, because he really does not demand much of us in the solving. He pretty much says what he means. Poets never do that.
I have a problem with that.
This way of looking at poets is not a harmless misunderstanding. It has far-reaching implications. Every collective groan that overtakes a classroom when the word poetry is mentioned, is a consequence of this mess. Every brief poetry unit, quickly completed and then dismissed, is a consequence of this mess. But most tragic is that every poet who writes with the conviction that the more obscure, inaccessible, complex, and puzzling their work, the better it is, is a product of this mess. You see, that poet is the kid who was fortunate enough to get one of those early poems, who managed to decipher the meaning to the satisfaction of the teacher. And that kid started to think this is what makes good poetry. It is good because it is reserved for bright people like me. And so the more people I can puzzle, the better my work must be. This is the student who sits in an MFA classroom smiling with tremendous self-pleasure at the stumbling attempts of fellow students and especially the teacher, to make sense of his or her poem. And when it is clear that they have it wrong, that student feels triumphant. Great poem. This is a tragedy. What they have done may be something, but it is not great poetry. And when people say, “that was deep” what they mean is that they are too dumb to understand what the hell you have written, but they are too proud to say that, and they are too proud to admit that they are stupid and that you have confounded them with your genius. So they give you the benefit of the doubt. They blame themselves for not understanding. It is poetry after all.
I have a problem with that.
Poetry can be a lot of things. Poetry can be hard. Poetry can be easy. Poetry can be obscure. Poetry can be lucid and immediate. It can be a lot of things and far be it for me to say that so-called “hard poetry” is not deep – meaning, profoundly brilliant. But having read a lot of poetry from all over the world, and having met many poets and worked with many poets, I am convinced that poets are far less interested in not being understood, and more interested in being understood. Poets only think about that classroom discussion long after the poem has been written and become what it is, if ever. The poet is interested in conveying some meaning, even if that meaning is meaninglessness. In that sense, Billy Collins is a poet of the highest order because Billy Collins is interested in being interesting. I want so much to be able to walk into every classroom and tell students who are about to be initiated into the cult of meaning, that poets are their friends. Okay, that sounds a tad maudlin and trite, but what I do mean is that the poet is not the enemy. The poem is not the enemy. The warfare that ensues in the classroom after the rituals of meaning are introduced represent, for me, the greatest tragedy for poetry, at least here in the US.
And I do have a problem with that.
Here is what I think: the answer to the war between the reader and the poet is not less poetry, but more poetry. I think that for every poem that we have to say the meaning of, we must read and simply read ten poems without discussing their meaning. I think that we should be allowed to say, “I don’t know what this means,” and just move on to another poem. I have to think that in this world in which trillions of poems exists somewhere, there has to be a poem for everyone. And here, let me take a slight risk and say that I am not talking about just any kind of poem that says it is a poem. I mean that there is enough poetry of substance and depth out there for there to be a poem of substance and depth for everyone. If we allow folks the chance to discover that poem, we will at least establish a more pleasant relationship between the poet and the reader.
Which is why I think Billy Collins is a popular poet. I think Billy Collins is a popular poet because he expects to be understood emotionally and intellectually. Billy Collins does not write prose with extra line breaks. There is music in Collins’ poetry, there is language play, there is formal play, there is irony, there are allusions, there are enough devices to keep a practical criticism class busy for at least a whole period. Our famous crossword puzzle loving author is very wrong about Billy Collins, and quite wrong about poetry. Does he matter? I don’t know, but those people who read him, will hear what he has said about poetry and may even agree.
And I have a problem with that.
Happy Poetry Month!