Thursday, April 21, 2011

Poem #21 -- Overheard


The reason there is so much bad poetry written
is that the tools of poetry are so accessible --
with pencil and paper anyone can write a poem,
unlike, say, playing the saxophone,
which requires the instrument and some lessons.
And who could just go out and start hacking
at a block of marble and make a sculpture on the first try?

The training for writing poetry is in the library.
Reading poetry.
Reading deeply.

And you find your voice by 
being jealous of other poets.
By reading other poets.

You write poetry because of 
an urge to emulate,
to imitate.

No copyright on these words, folks, because Billy Collins said them -- I just wrote them down. What he said about bad poetry...ouch. I feel like a poser with this "tra-la-la, I'll write a poem a day" project. And yet, what he said about reading poetry, and the urge to emulate...I do that! I have nearly every book of poetry he's published, plus one long and two short shelves of other poetry books (not to mention Amy LV's The Poem Farm, the weekly impromptu anthology known as Poetry Friday, and The Writer's Almanac). 

Billy Collins has a new book of poetry, published just this month:
Horoscopes for the Dead: Poems

And now I have a whole new slew of favorite Collins poems, such as the five-liner that made the crowd burst into laughter, the one that riffs off a comment overheard in a restaurant ("I was like give me a break"), the one about having a hangover and listening to kids playing Marco Polo, the poem about memorizing a poem. 


  1. I wonder
    if we best find out voice
    by pushing aside
    the white men on horses
    who tell us
    that song lyrics
    and rap
    and hip hop from the streets
    are not really poetry
    but are mere pop cultural bastardizations
    of a living language
    that breathes mostly


    PS -- and yet, I agree -- we need to read to learn, and then branch off into new directions on our own.

  2. Yes, Kevin, we need to learn the tools and the conventions in order to have a starting point for our innovations. You have to know the rules in order to thoughtfully and purposefully break them.

    And yet...

    And yet there are those who able to create something new that is completely outside of even the innovations, let alone the conventions.

    So maybe the rule is, every rule was meant to be broken.

  3. Anonymous11:37 AM

    Oh Mary Lee, didn't you know this was going to go straight to my heart? Ouch! And yet that accessibility is one of the things I love about it. I can't turn a kid on to writing a novel but a poem, heck, anyone can write a poem. :)

    I think we're doing all the right steps. We're playing. We're reading. We're emulating. Some days things turn out better than others.

    What I am finding is that I need to separate the learning part of my process from the writing part of my process because they use different parts of the brain.

  4. I will eat my hat if most folks who are writing song lyrics and rap and hip hop are not emulating their favorites. They still learn by taking it all in, imitating what speaks to them. Sometimes, someone might want to break free of rap's conventions and find it challenging/be rebuffed because there are rap "rules" as much as any other kind of poetry "rules." Just sayin'.

  5. My older sons (11 and 13) just had an argument other day about what rap is (they were discussing Kanye West). It was interesting to eavesdrop on their heated argument.
    Are there rules to rap? Is it a genre?

  6. I think there are tons of people (adults, kids, me on lots of days) writing bad poetry. But so what? There are lots of people singing poorly and dancing really badly--and if it brings them joy and teaches them something about themselves and the world and, most importantly, makes them feel something, then I say do it! Writing weak poetry isn't a shameful thing. It's one step along the long road to writing strong poetry!

    Love Billy Collins--just got his new book and can't wait to read it!

  7. i agree with the commenter above-- so what if it's bad?!

    also, i think the more likely conclusion about rules, etc is that there truly are no rules.


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