Contemporary poets save the poetic genre from academia
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When I first encountered contemporary poetry, I was pushed into an unsettling space where trying to understand a central theme left me perplexed. Through academic conditioning, I was one of those poetry readers who could quickly identify the main idea and then earn praise for doing it, not realizing that somehow, appreciating poetry had become secondary in the process. That’s when I discovered “Paradoxes And Oxymorons” by John Ashbery, where he writes: “you have it but you don’t have it / you miss it, you miss it / you miss you each other”. This poem changed my perception of poetry.
Poetry is meant to be a drifting experience that we may not always be able to grasp. This sense of floating, the dreamlike associative state we enter when reading poetry, is something I struggled to resist as years of academic training taught me to be mechanical with my interpretations.
After exploring contemporary poetry, I’m finally learning to express my need to find a singular theme. I also learned to think, process, be attentive and half-dream simultaneously instead of being too focused on picking up a central idea and being the first to raise my hand in English class.
In why poetry Matthew Zapruder writes: “Poetry is a conversation built on the border of dream. It is a mechanism by which the essential state of daydreaming can be made available to our conscious mind. In academia, the importance of this daydreaming state is often overlooked. This leaves readers feeling that the dreamlike state created by the poetry is a flaw, rather than something to be cherished.
The urge to break things down into understandable chunks is fundamental to academia and often defeats the promise and purpose of poetry. This is where contemporary poetry wins. Through remarkable imagery and language that is both lyrical and pointed, Vietnamese American poet Ocean Vuong launches an exploration of his family history, complicated interpersonal relationships, and the aftermath of war and trauma.
Vuong shows that there is no retreat from reality or the world we inhabit. He does not try to escape or resist reality. Instead, he reimagines and recombines the real to create content for his poems, while maintaining the drifting experience poetry is meant to provide, through his arresting choice of words. He rediscovers the precious awareness that poetry is supposed to bring to life—the daydreams that exist beneath the surface of our everyday existence: “I write because they told me never to start a sentence with because. But I wasn’t trying to make a sentence, I was trying to free myself.
Through his poems, he rearranges the ordinary and the extraordinary into new forms while preserving the daydream state so that readers can better understand their lives and themselves. He is not trying to escape his lived experiences, but rather to create another type of engagement with them.
The same can be said of the poetry of Richard Siken. Its cinematic imagery, unwavering narrative voice, and rich insight into the human spirit recreate a dreamlike quality that draws readers into the confusion of love. For example:
“I re-read your story. I think it’s about me in a way that might not be flattering, but that’s okay. We dream and dream of being seen for who we really are and then finally someone looks at us and really sees us and we fail to measure ourselves. Anyway: story received, story included.
Siken asks us to put an end to the void of language, as we often see in the poetic texts prescribed by academia. Talk about the human condition in all its depth.
At Ada Limon Luminous dead things is another instance where its fluid narrative style and quiet revelations seem almost surreal and dreamlike. She not only recognizes the uncontrollable forces of nature, but also tries to exploit them here. The shift from understated observations to bold statements represents the timelessness of this collection.
The speaker navigates her beliefs, her past and the world she is part of in an innocent yet confident voice: “Here it is: the new way of living with the world inside of us so we can’t lose, and we cannot be lost. You and I are us and them, and him and heaven. I read this as Limón urging us to embrace a new way of life, that is, say to get out of academic snobbery and let poetry be ours in the truest sense.
She connects her daily moments to her deep anxieties which sometimes border on mental claustrophobia. This collection unfolds as human thoughts do in a semi-conscious state of mind. His poems weave an abstract language with solid images, which further reinforce his dreamlike aspect. Whether it’s love or loss, she skillfully portrayed the unknown that lies both inside and outside of the human mind.
Ultimately, academia robs poetry of the joy that contemporary poets strive to restore. Not everything needs to be broken down until the essence is lost. And not everything needs to conform to a conventional set of inflexible rules. More importantly, not everything needs to be framed.
If you want to dive deeper into the world of contemporary poetry, check out 8 Poetry Books of 2021 to read right now.