I’m taking “Junior Poet” right now, and we’re starting off the semester reading a lot of more modern poetry. Particularly, we spent an entire day of class analyzing the poem “Persimmons”, by Li-Young Lee. There was much conversation about how great a poem it was, mostly based on the fact that he uses the poem to talk about the nature of poetry and sexuality in an interesting manner, and tells a somewhat interesting story.
I pretty much disagree with everything the professor had to say about the poem’s worth.
It’s not that I don’t think the poem is about the nature of poetry (it is), or that it doesn’t narrate a somewhat interesting story. It’s that all of those things are irrelevant if the music of the words themselves – the simple cadence of the phrases, regardless of the meaning – aren’t beautiful while still conveying meaning not through words, but just through the sound of the words, and if the inages used aren’t unusually evocative and memorable. If it doesn’t do those things, it seems to me, it’s really just a prose passage with funny line breaks.
But instead, the JPo class seems to go in assuming its a great poem, not looking at the form of the poem much at all. Because there’s really not much there – there’s a few tricky ornaments added, but that’s like having statues and stained-glass-windows propped up in midair without the cathedral holding them up. They fall down.
It’s not that I hate modern and contemporary poetry or don’t understand free verse. T.S. Eliot is an amazing poet who succeeds at what poets have to succeed at, as I outlined a few paragraphs up – Prufrock is actually the poem I was primarily thinking of when writing that. But many poets today seem to have forgotten what poetry is actually about.