Monday, April 13, 2009

Falling Flat

Did you write poetry when you were a teenager? I did. It ranged from mildly indigestible to patentable as a natural emetic. Later, I buried the entire oeuvre seventeen feet down in the middle of a pathless American desert. You won't find it. It suffices that you know there was light and blood and sweat; there were whirlwinds; there were gratuitous uses of the word "abyss."

Teenage poetry, to put it bluntly, sucks. So why in God's name would anyone read whole anthologies of the stuff? This was the question that leaped -vaulted, hurtled- to mind when I saw that Katie Roiphe has reviewed two books of poems by teenagers in Sunday's NYT Book Review. "Falling Hard: 100 Love Poems by Teenagers" is pretty self-explanatory. "Tell the World" is a collection of poems generated in workshops run by Writercorps, a program that encourages students to write about their lives in verse.

Setting aside the question of whether any of us should be encouraged to versify our lives (do we really need more wannabe poets? Do we really need to spend more time writing and thinking about ourselves? And why is there no Readercorps?), why were these books published? Roiphe includes excerpts from both books: the writing is not enjoyable as writing. I can only assume we are meant to gain something from reading teenage poetry beyond the pure pleasure of poetry: some glimpse of a life other than our own, some distillation of the adolescent experience.

Roiphe says: "Especially in the work written by teenagers themselves, one gets the sense of reading someone’s journal, glimpsing a private universe. There is an honesty and life to the poems, in all of their poses and self-consciousness, that raises them above more polished adult attempts to recollect those years in tranquility."

Except I don't read poetry to get a glimpse of someone's private universe. If I want to get a glimpse of someone's private universe, I snoop in his medicine cabinets. If I want to read someone's journal, I read someone's journal. To peddle poetry as an expression of the self does poetry a profound disservice. It perpetuates a popular perception of the art that is both off-base and enervating. Weak poets plumb their own depths. Strong poets, the poets I like to read, turn not inward but outward, using their words like numb, blind fingers to grasp at something cold or pure or wild.

I'm sparing you my teenage verse. I don't want to read yours, either.

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