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Monday, September 13, 2010

Gong Vs. Bong

I teach Freshman English at SFA. When I mention poetry, my students' eyes invariably glaze over, as if I suddenly started spouting off algorithms. Some of them visibly shudder. I see the lights in their eyes switch off.

That is one of the reasons that the trend of contemporary poetry to embrace vertigo worries me. Tony Hoagland, in his recent article "Recognition, Vertigo, and Passionate Worldliness," states that the "most prevalent poetic representation of contemporary experience is the mimesis of disorientation by non sequitur" (Poetry 441). He says all you have to do is pick up any new poetry magazine and you'll discover "the angular juxtaposition of dissonant data, dictions, and tones, without defining relations between them" (441).

To Hoagland's credit, in his article he seeks to highlight poetry that produces both the "gong of recognition" and the "bong of disorientation," poetry that both helps us understand the world we live in while simultaneously resisting and engaging the intellect of readers (437). I think this is a very tall order, but I admire poets who try.

Let me be clear. I am not against writerly texts, poetry written for other poets. I am a Joycean, after all. Ulysses so successfully engaged and resisted that I ended up taking not one, but two graduate courses trying to crack that nut. And I presented a paper at the North American Joyce Conference. I get writing for the sake of reflecting the complexities of the world we live in. But....

What kind of readership can this type of poetry generate? Poetry that embraces vertigo seems disingenuous in a way, disrespectful of a general readership, alienating at a time when more people than ever are literate and have the opportunity to become engaged in lively and mesmerizing poetry.

I love Ted Kooser's work. It is full of bright metaphors, clear and engaging ideas. He writes with great care not to put off his readers. When I read Kooser's work, I feel like he is smiling at me, giving me a gentle nod of the head as if to say, "you see what poetry can do?" He writes to make his readers comfortable, to clarify experience.

I also enjoy Naomi Shihab Nye's poetry. She has the habit of stitching together words and scenes in a non sequitur fashion, but the connections between the images are there. She respectfully steps back and allows the intelligence of her readers to work at making the connections themselves.

I'll say it again for emphasis. Capturing vertigo in contemporary poetry is interesting and perhaps cutting edge, but ultimately it is rather elitist and will only shrink the readership of poetry further.

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