Poetry Doesn’t Have to be the Worst: Three Contemporary Poets to Get You Started
When I tell people that I read poetry—and even worse, if I tell them I write poetry—I sometimes get some strange looks. Or at least, a raised eyebrow that seems to say, “Well aren’t you so fancy and smart?” Poetry as a whole has a bad reputation for being boring, snobbish, and hard to understand. Some of it definitely is, but not all of it. There are lots of amazing poets out there who have written interesting, funny, and easy to digest poetry. I’d like to present you with three of my current favorites: Claudia Rankine, Patricia Lockwood, and Tracy K. Smith. These three women write about race, class, feminism, space, death, porn, identity, and more. These themes are what so many of us like to explore in comics, fiction, nonfiction, film, and more. Why not let poetry take a crack at them?
I am a straight, white, cisgendered woman. With many of those things comes a lot of privilege. As a feminist I believe it’s important to know how your own privileges informs the way you look at the world and to be careful lest you overlook others’ experience because they might be different from yours. So, while I don’t always do the best job of this, I try to read widely and outside of my comfort zone. I can’t have the experience of an African American man or a girl growing up poor in the city or any of the other experiences that were not my own, but luckily, books and other media are full of those stories. It’s crucial to me to be able to read and learn from the stories of those different from me.
This is a long introduction to say that Claudia Rankine’s intriguing mix of poetry, prose, and essays are not really my experiences, but that only makes them so very important. Rankine’s most recent book, Citizen: An American Lyric, lays out the American experiences that so many people of color in our country have on a daily basis.
It’s the kind of book that I read quickly. The sections are both fluid and blunt; many are prose poems that read like hushed conversations to a trusted friend. The sections are numbered, but there is not a lot of formal structure, so it makes a nice flow all the way through. I started looking at it at work, and before I knew, I was a third of the way through. It hooks you.
The book is an interesting mix of essays and prose poems, which recount some observations and listings of racial aggressions, almost always addressing “you.” You are the one this is happening to, you are the American, and this is your lyric of hate and frustration and the strange mix of invisibility and being in the spotlight. If you’re not African American you’re asked to put on those shoes for a mile or more, and if you are, it may be a reminder of what your days are like. Either way, we are America and asked to reckon with these stories. For example, Rankine writes:
“A man knocked over her son in the subway. You feel your own body wince [ . . . ] you want the child pushed to the ground to be seen, to be helped to his feet, to be brushed off by the person that did not see him, has never seen him, has perhaps never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself.”
There are a lot of these you stories, and they remind me of the confessional microaggressions blog, except these are not the “micro” that you might think: in one, your coworker confides that they need to hire a minority candidate over other, better qualified candidates; or that your neighbors have called the cops on your babysitter, whom they’ve met, because they don’t recognize him as the supposed “menacing black man casing your house;” or the woman who would rather stand for a long train ride than sit next to you.
Rankine challenges us—the “you”—in these sections to account for this. Her bluntness in presenting the stories makes the injustice all the more damning. It’s as if she’s saying, “Yes, it is what it is. Now, what are you going to do about it?” Together with the striking cover image of a dark hoodie, that immediately recalls the murder of Trayvon Martin, Rankine’s book pulls no punches. To be a citizen, an African American, an African American citizen is to stand witness to this:
“Even as your own weight insists
you are here, fighting off
the weight of nonexistence.”
With poetry, art, music, and all culture, there is the danger of being timely to the point of dating yourself. Future generations may look back and say, “Oh, how 2014. Cute.” Of the three, Lockwood’s book Motherland, Fatherland, Homelandsexuals is at the most risk for this critique. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, though I’m sure for some she does walk the line of being just too “edgy” to be taken seriously. Her work comes at a time, in our 2010s, where arguably the intersection of feminism and social media make for frequent headlines—Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s TED talk about feminism and the danger of a single story, Beyonce’s FEMINIST sign on tour, various social media campaigns related to women come to mind—and Lockwood uses that to her advantage. Many people who have heard of Lockwood, have encountered her most famous poem “Rape Joke.” Critics, professional and causal alike, have debated about what she’s trying to say in the poem. Is she condemning rape or rape jokes or both? With lines like, “The rape joke is that you had been drinking wine coolers. Wine coolers! Who drinks wine coolers? People who get raped, according to the rape joke.”
It seems to me that she is saying, Is it a joke? A fucking joke to be raped? No, but sometimes we have to use the guise of humor to describe something horrible. But we call them funny anyway. It’s not funny that someone would give you a copy of Pet Sounds after he raped you like Lockwood says, but it’s a weird, awful, bizarre occurrence that happens in our world and maybe it’s our defense mechanism to call it “funny.” It’s all a joke in the sense of the word that it’s a ruse and a sham. A farce. “Rape Joke,” like rape, isn’t funny at all: it’s fucking terrible, but maybe we tell ourselves to laugh to keep from crying.
Aside from her most famous poem, the rest of the poems in the collection are accessible and easy to read. They don’t necessarily require a literature degree to interpret them, and that is refreshing, in a way. They are strange and sometimes jarring. Titles like “The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer” jump out and makes you wonder if this is the sort of thing your aunt, who majored in literature in college and loves Jane Austen, is reading. Maybe, maybe not.
There is an undercurrent of sexualized energy running throughout Motherland, Fatherland Homelandsexuals. “Revealing Nature Photographs” imagines the reader finding a:
revealing nature photographs, of supernude nature
photographs [ . . . ] full of 70s bush, nature taking come
from every man for miles around.”
The poem goes on to list a things nature does and has done to her. Does Lockwood mean for “nature” to be “Mother Nature,” and is the poem a celebration of the spectrum or human sexuality—or at least the spectrum viewed through a seemingly male gazey view—a “you do you” rallying cry? To me, the last lines, “You exhale with perfect happiness. Nature turned you down in high school. Now you can come in her eye,” show how the often vindictiveness of humanity’s interactions with the environment mirror patriarchal societies’ objectification and abuse of women. You can get some deep thoughts from a poem that at first glance is just a long list of sex acts.
Sometimes the poems are charming, like “The Hunt for a Newborn Gary,” which makes you imagine the parents selecting what seems like a quintessential middle aged name for a tiny baby. Other poems let Lockwood’s imagination run into whimsy, such as “Nessie Wants to Watch Herself Doing It.” “It” being as Nessie—that is, the Loch Ness Monster, obviously—says, “Doing what, I don’t know, being alive.” The poor monster realizes the lake could be a perfect mirror for her except for the fact that she happens to currently occupy said lake. And isn’t that really how we all are? Wishing we could take the clues from our world to see ourselves, yet bemoaning the fact we can’t leave our own world to see it.
With an image from the Hubble telescope on the cover and a title like Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith’s book just screams: SPACE. And it is a lot about space in the same way that some books of poems about are trees, and ladies, and the moon, but are really about deep feelings. Often those type of poetry collections can seem opaque, and you might spend time in classes trying to figure out what the heck T.S. Eliot is talking about. So yes, it’s about space, but it’s so much more, and Smith writes in such a way that you can often say, Yes, this is about telescopes, but it’s also about my day to day life.
On the surface, in space oriented level of the book, she writes about her father who happened to work on the Hubble Telescope when she was a child, muses about life on other planets, pays homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and talks a lot about David Bowie. There’s, like, two whole David Bowie poems, which is a hell of a lot more than most poets’ David Bowie poem output.
In “Sci Fi,” one of the first poems, she writes:
“There will be no edges, but curves.
Clean lines pointing only forward.”
This evokes so many of our futuristic spaceships and worlds. Maybe it won’t be like that and maybe it will, but for now we are happy with the fantasy of safety in space and the romance of it all. In “The universe is a house party,” she imagines our existence as just that: that amazing party that you desperately want to attend, and when you get there, you welcome the others from the around the universe/neighborhood saying:
“How marvelous you’ve come! We won’t flinch
at the pinprick mouths, the nubbin limbs.”
It’s our party and we are the host even though we have no idea who will actually show up and from where.
This is the most “poem-y” of the three books in this starter set. There are even some sections of Smith’s poems that rhyme, but in slanted, grown up rhymes that you can respect. No juvenile cat-hat-vat sequences here or even worse the strict rhyme scheme dots and dashes you had to write out in school. But it’s worth it especially once you get to the poems about her father dying and the nature of death and life. There are some marvelous and evocative lines here, especially in “The Speed of Belief.”
“You stepped out of the body. Unzipped it like a coat.”
I think that one of the best poems in the collection is the heartbreaking “They may love all that he has chosen and hate all that he has rejected,” which is about murder victims. Some victims you may immediately recognize, like Dr. George Tiller, the late term abortion provider murdered in his church, and others who you may not, like Raul and Brisenia Flores (Brisenia was NINE years old) murdered by racist domestic terrorists. Part IV of the poem is entitled “In which the dead send postcards to their assailants from America’s most celebrated landmarks.” Brisenia’s letter to her murderer writes about visiting the Statue of Liberty—“the big tall lady”—and writing, “My daddy says we’re free now to do whatever we want.” The poem will break your heart.
There are plenty more poets who are writing today doing incredible and inspiring work. Take a stroll through the poetry section of your local bookstore and peek in some. You may find yourself lost for a while and emerge challenging the way you look at life. Finally, tell me what great poets I’m missing in the comments!