Is Poetry For Everyone? Is Sentimental Writing Stupid?

This article on whether or not poetry, creative writing, and MFAs are part of a capitalist, cultural, exclusive elite really stuck me this week.  I encourage anyone who considers themselves an artist to read and weigh in.  Is it true?  Has art in this country become so commodified that we ascribe cultural currency to those who would be artists in such a way that grants social legitimacy to them when we would not do the same for, say, an assembly line worker, who may in fact be making more money than a graduate teaching assistant?

The article gets really depressing for someone halfway through her MFA, but the ending had the kind of redemptive quality to it that I admire in terms of explaining to myself and others why poetry can be powerful.

If we want to bring those critics and those masses to our poems, if we want poetry to matter to those outside our classrooms and conference halls—and there may be some poets who don’t; bully for them—then those others, their lives and their language, have to matter to us first. The only way they will is if we disrupt the culture of privilege that insulates us. And we need to disrupt it, not for our egoistic desire for a larger audience, but for the sake of our art. The only job of the poet is to destabilize and expand language. This is how poetry changes the world—not by grand ambition or the lauding of critics. It takes the plodding, unending effort of many to alter line by line, phrase by phrase, word by word the way we describe ourselves and everything around us. This is how we change perception. This is how we change the mind. We can’t do it while isolated by our privilege. There are too few of us. Our language is too limited. We need more words. We need more than ourselves and each other. We need every brokeshoulder to the wheel.

I have been kind of annoyed lately regarding the stuffiness of workshop.  Sometimes it really does seem as though poetry is written for other poets, rather than for the masses.  There’s been a recent trend lately too for more esoteric, allusive poetry, which I find myself more and more impatient with the older I get.

I got slammed last week for being sentimental in my writing.  I wanted to argue, but of course, workshop is not a place to argue.  What’s wrong with a little smaultz from time to time, especially if the audience and writer is aware of it?  What’s wrong with “ordinary language” so long as it is precise and clear and conveys a feeling, puts a picture in one’s head?

Enough of the rat race already.  I want a poetry that’s for the masses.  I want to write poems for everyone.  Ones I can bring home to my family and have them understand (unlike the research projects I’ve shared with them in the past).

And that doesn’t make me any less educated or smart.  I resent the implication that it might.  Especially as a woman.

Again, I’m not sure why I think Taylor Swift fits into this–but she does.  This other article I read a while back perfectly summed up for me why people who go out of their way to criticize her art belong in the same camp as those who would say that poetry should be for a cultural elite only.

Swift countered critics by saying,”For a female to write about her feelings, and then be portrayed as some clingy, insane, desperate girlfriend in need of making you marry her and have kids with her, I think that’s taking something that potentially should be celebrated – a woman writing about her feelings in a confessional way – that’s taking it and turning it and twisting it into something that is frankly a little sexist.’

Snaps, girlfriend.

And to round it out, I’ll end with a quote from an essay put on Viriginia Quarterly, excerpted from a wonderful book, The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, a writer I deeply admire.

“I think dismissing female pain as overly familiar or somehow out-of-date—twice-told, thrice-told, 1001-nights-told—masks deeper accusations: that suffering women are playing victim, going weak, or choosing self-indulgence over bravery. I think dismissing wounds offers a convenient excuse: no need to struggle with the listening or telling anymore. Plug it up. Like somehow our task is to inhabit the jaded aftermath of terminal self-awareness once the story of all pain has already been told.

The wounded woman gets called a stereotype, and sometimes she is. But sometimes she’s just true. I think the possibility of fetishizing pain is no reason to stop representing it. Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it. “

The way she dares to be sentimental at the end strikes this writer, anyway, as a profound act of bravery in today’s academic, allusion lovin’, irony driven readership.

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Filed under creative writing, law of attraction, women

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