“All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.” –Oscar Wilde
Medium is a large part of effective communication. If you miss the correct forum or mechanism for your voice, you run the risk of ultimately losing your audience…it matters little how important your message. Recently, I watched a movie that was made using a book that I really enjoyed as its source material. The titles of the book and the movie were both “Blue Like Jazz“. The book was an autobiographical account of a man named Donald Miller and his search of understanding his own faith in Christ beyond the pale of his parent’s faith, beyond the faith that he’d co-opted as a result of his upbringing. The movie was not. The movie was a confused coming of age story that used scenes and themes from the book, but massaged and bathed them in clichés and simple-minded tropes to the point of being almost unrecognizable to those in the book. The movie galvanized a suspicion I’d held for a long time: there is more to good media than just earnestness. The folks working on the movie, a group that included the book’s author, probably wanted to make a good movie…I’m sure they were intent on making an authentic representation of the book. But, in the end, what they made was a movie, most aptly described by my friend Scott, that “Blew like Jazz”…Scott later apologized for his harsh treatment of Jazz…but I think he got it right. I learned through experiencing these two forms of media–medium that were ostensibly created by the same mind–that being good at one form of writing does not make you good at all of them. It’s not as though the book was an impossible impetus for a movie, two guys whose names are Mike Birbiglia and Ira Glass made a film called “Sleep Walk with Me” (available to stream on Netflix), and it is a great example of the sort of storytelling that was being attempted by “Jazz“. It is also proof that autobiographical material is the stuff of great movies when handled with a clarity of vision.
I’ve always had a passing interest in poetry. I’ve read a lot of it and even tried my hand at it a few times to dismal results. It became clear that there existed a disconnect between what I thought the secret to good poetry was and the actual secret. I longed to be a poet…I find myself drawn to their tortured disposition and stubborn reluctant attitude toward the commoditization of literature. While I was at the writer’s conference in San Francisco last year, I went to a class about writing poetry and prose. I’ve since come to determine that while poetry and prose share many things in common, to lump them together and try and teach something important about them in the span of an hour and a half is, at the very least, obtuse. But they had my money so everyone was happy…it’s not as though I came to this conclusion while they were talking. Ignorance truly is bliss, at times. The teachers, both professors, had very little to say about poetry I hadn’t heard before. There was a great deal of time spent on metering and tempo and the use of vocabulary to accomplish the poet’s intended purpose. Then came the most audacious claim of the class: “There is no right or wrong way to write poetry.” While I can appreciate their intended message, that one’s voice is not validated or made invalid by another’s opinion concerning said voice, to say that there exists no right or wrong way to write poetry is as obtuse as the class’ syllabus.
I understand, on a certain level, structuring sentences and phrases in a way that both communicates and sings in one’s mind–I’ve written songs for a decade and a half now–some of which I’m quite proud, but I’ve never been able to write a single poem in a way that satisfies my curiosity with the medium and my grasp of it. While listening to an episode of “What The Fuck?“, a podcast hosted by comedian Marc Maron, I was struck by this subject as it was being discussed by Marc and, his guest for that episode, Iris DeMent. If ever there was a cross-over between the two disciplines of song-writing and poetry, she would be a candidate who could make the jump. She was the daughter of a poet and college professor who, as her father, would constantly encourage her that the poems she thought she was writing were actually songs. He also was of the unpopular opinion that Bob Dylan was a songwriter and not a poet, a distinction he thought was important. Thank God he did so…the world is a better place because Iris DeMent realized that she was a songwriter.
My friend Matt is a poet. He is the only poet that I’ve ever had the honor to meet whose poetry didn’t make me blush for lack of a response that was both honest and kind upon hearing one of his pieces. I love his work. Here is a piece he’s kindly allowed me to use in the interest of making my point:
CHURCH OF POST-LATTER DAY SAINTS
Saint Francis stands in the corner.
His eyes track the even click
of the second-hand around the face
of his wristwatch, his foot
impatiently tapping as if there is
some place he’d rather be.
The law of diminished expectations
was coined for an occasion
like this. Nothing, finally,
really means nothing.
Francis seems to know
it too, swatting with his Bible
at a mosquito, which carves
itself into the scene
like a demand or a question,
a tiny black angel
now crushed like a bug
against the silvery white of the walls…
This was one of the first examples of poetry that convinced me I didn’t get it, I’m no poet. Later in life, Matt and I were talking about this. He told me that he’d finally finished a grip of poems on which he’d been working for years but for which he’d struggled to find a suitable ending. He said that in poetry the end is a delicate and subtle thing…it is not a punch-line. Boom, there it was…my whole sensibility in communication is punch-line. This isn’t to say I’ve quit the pursuit, why would I quit having learned an important piece of the puzzle? It is to say that the cross-over of medium is not as simple as some would have you believe…as I’d have myself believe. Recent efforts have produced this:
Suicide is painless the singer lies
in dulcet tones like lullabies.
But I’ve seen the pain in a daughter’s eyes
because her daddy chose to believe it.
I don’t know what that is per-se, but it’s something…and I’m not as embarrassed by it as I have been by previous attempts.
Maychance you’re asking yourself, “What is the point?” Is this nothing more than a self-indulgent description of journey where-in I learned something about poetry? Maybe. But I do think there is a lack of respect in western culture for craft…an imprecise attitude toward tools and unique disciplines. I once had the attitude that a poem was nothing more than a song with no music, and when I tried to write it as such, the result was not a poem. It was a song with no music. Looking back, this seems as foolish as trying to use a broken economic system to control a society…like communism…or, for that matter, capitalism…