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Frederica Mathewes-Green


Poetry for Dummies

I was aware that the poetry industry had gone through a number of software upgrades since I last twirled an "oftimes."

Stacks of poetry books are resting on my desk, slim books with shiny covers, like hard little pills of intensity and voluptuous emotion. They are the paper equivalent of social x-rays; they exude the philosophy "You can never be too thin or too rich." No wonder I'm intimidated.

My husband and I agreed to arm-wrestle a hearty stack o' poetry in preparation for National Poetry Month, and I think we were selected primarily for our ignorance. In my case, it's an ignorance standing in heroic resistance to years of experience. I started out writing poetry, and at the age of 13 won an award for one about a deserted town, I think because of the dead flies on a windowsill. I also got to say "thee" and "nought" and other hoity words you can only use in poems. For ten years I had a ball being a poet. I read and wrote a great deal of the stuff, then gave it up for changing diapers.

When I came back to writing, a half-dozen years ago, it never crossed my mind to resume poetry. Too many diapers, car pools, sleepovers, and prom dresses had played havoc with my ability to think concisely. But I was also aware that the poetry industry had gone through a number of software upgrades since I last twirled an "oftimes."

In a South Carolina girls' school in 1964, I was writing sonnets, ballads, an occasional sestina. Now the Queen of American Poesy appears to be Jorie Graham, Pulitzer-crowned beauty, "swathed in black from head to foot, with enough bracelets and necklaces and rings to herniate a belly dancer," according to the New Yorker's Stephen Schiff. A sample poem begins, "Even the plenitude is tired of the magnanimous"—wait a minute, I started laughing. Oh, my. OK, here she goes:

Even the plenitude is tired of the magnanimous, disciplined, beached eye in its thrall. Even the accuracy is tired—the assimilation tired—of entering the mind.

The reader is tired.

I am so very tired.

Even if we all freshen up with a little nap, this is not going to make much more sense. ...

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