Monday, June 09, 2014

Poetry: The Cilantro Of The Literary World? I'm Dying To Convert The Haters Out There

Sometimes I think Poetry is like cilantro; you either love it or you hate it. Probably English teachers are largely to blame for this. We can never, ever leave things alone. "Why, what a lovely poem," Innocent Student says brightly after reading. "I liked the idea of that winding vine and the gate. The whole thing sounded nice. And the white rose was pretty, too. Okay, next."

"Oh, really?" English Teacher asks, one eyebrow lifted. "You mean you didn't think the vine was choking the gate, making it struggle to open? You didn't think that was...oh, I don't know...symbolic? Didn't you think that perhaps the gate was a symbol of freedom? And why was the rose white? And what about the word choice? Did it really sound nice?"

Sigh. All that carping can take the fun and enjoyment and appreciation right out of Poetry for some readers. (Even as it puts the fun and deeper appreciation right in for others.) It turns people against Poetry because they become afraid of it. They think that there is some Hidden Meaning that only English teachers and SmartyPants have the key to. They decide that Poetry is For Others. Therein lies the problem.

While traditional "Dead White Guy" poetry usually does employ all kinds of symbols and devices that add meaning and depth, plenty of modern poetry just doesn't go that route. Twenty-first century poets, especially, enjoy experimenting with moments--expanding them, magnifying them, changing them, lending them weight and import. Some poets want to make you feel the way they do about a subject, so they show it to you as only they see it. Still others want to play a bit of The Magician--with a collection of merely a dozen or so lines, they can cleverly beguile you, only to leave you breathless and completely astonished at the end.

photo by Jeannette Palsa
One of my most virulent Poetry Haters became a poet himself. I bullied him into taking my Creative Writing I and II class, and he is now an oft-published author of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction with a few awards here and there to keep his ego warm at night. He's no longer afraid of poetry, and even blank expanses of paper don't scare him. Once, after a long talk with a friend, he decided to write a poem about the One Thing that truly frightens him. Meet my friend Eric Anderson and read his poem about


At first, I mistook them for the hedgerow. That's how still
the dead were, as they stood in my front yard.
In their hands, they held the snow
which they brought all the way from Canada. They had icicles
on their cheeks and chins, heads tilted back, snow
covering their faces. I watched
from the warm window, and when they saw my hand
parting the curtains, they thought I was waving.
The dead waved back. I felt obliged
to put on my coat, go outside. I brought
hot chocolate. The dead weren't thirsty. They were
lonely for the living. We made dead snowmen,
dead igloos, packed the snow into a slide for the dead
children to go down. The dead love to leave
their footprints in fresh snow,
even if they drag their feet. I don't know why
I went with them when they started walking back,
past Canada, past Hudson Bay, farther.
We came to the North Pole. We kept going north;
when you're dead, it's important to stay cool.
I carried snow, no warmth in my hands to make it melt.
To get where the dead are going, it takes forever. You think
you'll never arrive. Then you're there.

--Eric Anderson

This poem works on so many levels that Everyone can appreciate it.  The subject matter is delightfully absurd:  the speaker looks out the window and discovers that what he thought was his row of shrubbery is actually a gathering of zombies. Instead of being terrified, he waves at them (since they waved first), takes them hot chocolate, and plays in the snow with them and their children.  Soon, they leave, and inexplicably, he leaves with them, following them all the way to the North Pole and beyond, where the speaker ultimately arrives at his final destination.

For me, as a creative writing teacher, I love the line breaks.  Each line breaks at a place that creates a bit of suspense or ambiguity for a split second before you get to the next line.  Notice how the line break creates a duality of meaning in some cases, such as here:

The dead love to leave
their footprints in fresh snow,
even if they drag their feet. I don't know why
I went with them when they started walking back,

"I don't know why" could be talking about the the previous image of zombies dragging their feet in the snow, but you don't know until you get to the next line.  This sort of enjambment (bigass poetry term!) also creates a halting, deadening movement to the reading of the poem that is appropriate to its subject.

Yet--you don't have to know or care about any of that.  The poem is like microfiction.  It's a funny little story all on its own.  It has enough imagery that you can picture the scene.  There are enough concrete details (hot chocolate, icicles on cheeks and chins, snow covering their faces) that you can fill in the blanks.  You can even get a little shudder at the idea of dead children going down a snowy slide.

But...but...what's the Deeper Meaning?  What is The Theme?  What did we all Learn?  Is the poem really a Metaphor for Living Life To The Fullest and all that crap?  (Whenever asked for the theme of anything, my students always yanked out "Live Life To The Fullest", and I always threatened to stab myself in the eye.)

Here's what I would say:  Hey.  It's a zombie poem.  I'm not about to go looking for a Deeper Meaning in a perfectly wonderful poem about zombies.  But, by all means, if you would like to, then certainly, go right ahead.

And, if you would like to read more of Eric Anderson's poetry, you can read him herehere, here, and here. Oh, and here.



  1. I never took a poetry class, nor have I ever taken a creative writing class. My university's English major program was pragmatic-- literature, history, research, travel + journalism.

    That being said, I like this poem for the exact reasons that you explain here. I've never read poetry looking for symbolism, I just read it once in a while to see how the flow of words makes for nice imagery.

    That's enough, right?

  2. Ha, ha. Love the description of The English Teacher. How easy it is to adopt a stance of smug superiority when students do not proffer at least a semblance of symbolic interpretation, even if it is totally out in left field. I have never taught poetry in English, but I can remember feeling intimidated in my undergrad college classes by professors who scared the daylights out of us by saying we would surely fail our lit course if we could not grasp the finer points of literary interpretation. It often took the joy out of what we were reading, whether it be poetry or prose, but poetry, especially, which can be appreciated on many levels. I think the fault in that sort of teaching lies with teachers who think they have to appear to be Gods of Academe so as to be respected by their students for their vast knowledge of the subject matter, and for whom it is an understood obligation to inculcate their students with this knowledge and wisdom so that they, too, can call themselves "educated." Ironically, the underbelly of poetry is precisely the feelings and emotions that it evokes. Style and technique are definitely critical, as well, but precisely for the reasons you give when you point out the significance of the line breaks: technique is used to create FEELING and evoke a response on the part of the reader. Can't have one without the other.

    Thank you for presenting this work of your former student. To be frank, I am not really a great fan of all the zombie culture that pervades the media lately, but Eric's poem took a contemporary fascination to a whole new level. He is a very talented writer and poet. I have only had time to read some of his poems on a few of the links that you provide, but intend to complete the journey.

    P.S. I don't know exactly how this works nowadays with self-publishing or publishing with a small press, but I would certainly encourage Eric to find a way to get his poetry books available on Amazon/Kindle e-books. I say this because one of the links you give leads to Kattywompus Press, which does sell his books, and perhaps, due to this, they remain a unique distributor and restrict his sales to only their site. If that is the case, I will sacrifice my Amazon Prime advantages and order from them. :-D

  3. I'm not sure that you will be able to convert anyone to cilantro...I've heard there's an enzyme that some of us have and others don't, so if you do (or don't, I can't remember), it tastes like soap to you. I have not fact checked this.

    I do think this poem could likely convert those who do not think they like poetry. It doesn't get bogged down in rules and regulations, and it's more of a story almost. Amusing to read.

    What a thing, to be a teacher. To be the one to encourage someone to do something like this with their life, and then to witness it happening. What a wonderful thing.

  4. J@jj--Oh, I don't care if anyone converts to cilantro. I meant that I want to convert all poetry-haters. If I could do that by the end of the month (or even convert a few), I would be ecstatic. Truly.

    Eric has a lot of poetry that is amusing, and a few start out downright hilarious. Then they move into such astonishingly gorgeous language that you tear up. (I do, anyway.)

    Having him in my class and working with him later on as his first editor was a gift. It was a massive, gargantuan privilege that I am never going to be able to repay.

    Ortizzle--Teaching poetry as a genre is a high-wire act. Students want desperately to Know The Answer. They crave direction and intent; they want a bit of pedantry in many cases. Even if I would stick them in groups or partners to hash out a poem, and they would, they merely wanted to compare their results with The Right Answer. It would be frustrating for me at times.

    On the other hand, there would be the Stubborn Core of those who would argue that a poem's meaning is open to interpretation always, and that anything a reader says it means, It Means. That is just as bad. In the case of Eric's poem here, it would be wrong to say that this is a lyric poem expressing love. No matter how many ways you contort the lines and narrative, the intent of the poem is not to wax romantic.

    Beyond all of that--I am absolutely not into zombies and am ignorant of any Zombie Culture and its rules/trends/styles, etc. I haven't ever seen a zombie movie. (Does MJ's "Thriller" count?) Like you, I like the narrative style of this poem.

    I am hoping to see/speak to Eric this week. I will pass on your advice to him regarding his book. And thank you for ordering it. You won't be disappointed. It is brilliant. (And this is the one he dedicated to me, btw. I'm still amazed by that fact.)

    Ally Bean--Of course it is. Having read, taught, written poetry for over 30 years, I have a sort of "Poetry For All Occasions" file in my head. There are moods for which I read Walt Whitman; moods for Emily Dickinson; moods for William Carlos Williams, and so on. WCW is my Quick Hit poet. His poems are simple, direct, and short. I read him for a fast infusion of poetry, usually when I need to remind myself that the world is still good, despite its modern bent.

    And every once in a while, I haul out William Stafford. He reminds me to stop and appreciate the world for its moments of wonder.

  5. Fun poem! Although (reading this at work with the air conditioner blowing on me) & was pretty darn cold by the end of it. For some reason it reminds me of the Teddy Bears Picnic. :)

    I remember taking Appalachian Literature in college & getting so frustrated - I was always thinking "what if the tree just means a tree?"

  6. Bug--It does have an odd little lilt of TBP! How fun.

    And I hear you re: symbolism. Sometimes, in many poems and genres, a tree is just a tree. It's always a high-wire act, the Knowing When. My students used to demand, "HOW DO YOU SEE THIS STUFF!?" Sometimes, I didn't even know how to answer them; it was just there; I could always see it. For me, it was instinctive, intuitive.

    And some writers do play very coy about the intentional symbolism in their work. Ernest Hemingway famously said, of The Old Man and the Sea, "There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are all sharks, no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know." Which gave a lot of students an easy way out in literary analysis papers (they thought), and was really nothing but bullshit that he wrote in a letter to a critic.

    I guess, in the final analysis, (pun fully intended), now that you are a grownup and out of formal schooling, you can read poems for any level of enjoyment and have a tree be just a tree whenever you want.

  7. He makes the words dance, and that, for me, is the root of pleasure. How lucky he was to have you to teach him.
    One of the reasons I left high school teaching was having to teach the [censored] Higher Meanings.
    And I like cilantro.
    Keep going, mentor.

  8. Mary G--Thank you so much. I hope you clicked the links provided so that you could read some more of Eric's work. He is a huge talent.

    I'm currently on another jaunt in Maryland, so I hope you (and all) will forgive me if I take a bit of time to post next. I also have a few other things on my mind to bring up for discussion here in addition to some poems. We may have to make Poetry Month more of a Regular Thing rather than a Month. But we'll see.

    Another jaunt for me will be up Your Way soon! Get Canada ready, won't you?


Oh, thank you for joining the fray!

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