Poetry and Potatoes

It’s hard to talk about liking poetry without coming off as an affected douchebag.  Unless, that is, you hang out at the type of parties I don’t get invited to.  But the truth is, there’s not a lot of love for poetry in the modern United States, an assertion I feel comfortable making given the evidence that it’s next to impossible to support yourself as a working poet.  Ask your average person what poetry is and you’ll likely get an answer lying somewhere on a spectrum between dirty limericks and the one Shakespearean sonnet their English teacher made them read in high school.

Mark Lawrence had some interesting things to say recently about the allegation (from a fan) that his writing was not poetic:

A well-known blogger who liked Prince of Thorns very much told me that he didn’t think my prose was at all poetic. It turns out that to him poetic prose is prose with lots of curls and twiddles, prose with endless description, flowers and clouds a la Wordsworth’s famous daffodils.

I do write poetic prose. No question about it. But I’m more of the Philip Larkin school. I also write actual poetry, but poetic prose is a different beast, it’s poetry diluted to taste.

Poetic prose, done right, is about wringing more out of a single line.

The idea that the adjective “poetic,” when referring to prose, might be meant as a criticism is enough to cork most English professors’ merlot.  But in the aforementioned blogger’s defense, that’s probably a common enough viewpoint these days.

I think the discord comes not from a genuine dislike of poetry, but from a popular misunderstanding of what good poetry is.  (Here’s where the affected douchebag bit comes in; as if I know better, right?)  I’m no expert, but speaking as someone who does occasionally read and write poetry, I feel like the major disconnect is due to the fact that those who don’t read or strongly dislike poetry think of poetry in terms of the worst Romantic frippery.  If you think of poetry in terms of Wordsworth and Shelley, it’s understandable why you’d think of “poetic prose” as being something purple and overdone.  You might not think of the sparseness of Hemingway or the bold economy of words in a Mark Lawrence novel as being poetic, but they are–in the best way.

One of my favorite poems is The Simple Truth by Philip Levine, written in 1995:

I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. “Eat, eat” she said,
“Even if you don’t I’ll say you did.”
Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.

The irony is that the simple way of saying things has become poetry over the last century.  Upon first reading, a poem like the above might irk you–its simplicity is blatant, like an abstract expressionist painting.  But the power of the words and the story it tells, the feelings it evokes, stay with you.  That’s what art is, isn’t it?  Something that produces an emotional response?  If Levine had used flowery language and ornate metaphor, the impact would have been lost.  As it is we have a simple truth: beauty lies most often in restraint.

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