Recently, Rose Tremain made a statement that: “Contemporary poetry is in a rotten state...” She continued saying: “I’m fervently hoping for something better soon.” I found that statement on Twitter, and despite not knowing who Rose Tremain is or reading the full article but guessing that she must be an important person, the troubleshooter in me did not take that statement likely. I responded “The same way we, the young folks thought that old poetry was torture in our literature classes. Shall we consider this karma or unintentional revenge?”
Rose Tremain’s words “Contemporary poetry is in a rotten state…” brought a lot of memories of me being in the literature class in high school reading boring books, old poetry heavily doused with masculinity and foreign books that I could not relate with. I remember sitting in class and also like Rose Tremain said: “fervently hoping for something better soon.” I honestly did not understand why people would torture themselves to write intentionally difficult poetry let alone force other people to read it or shame other people for not liking it. Particularly, in high school, I thought that poetry was flawed because it was selfish and did not cater to the reader, although to earn some marks, I would pretend to understand the poems in class and during my tests.
It was the summer of 2016 when I read the very first book that made me fall in love with poetry: Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. Even while in class, I couldn’t put the book down. After reading the book, I fussed and bragged about it to anyone who would care to listen to my rants. It was interesting, and I found it so fulfilling that poetry so simple could make such profound impact on millions of readers around the world and me. What pleased me the most was that I understood it. Reading Rupi Kaur’s book did not only rekindle my love for reading, but it transformed my mentality about prose and poetry writing.
In the preface of one of my favorite books titled Your Father Walks Like a Crab by Tolu Akinyemi, a top contemporary Nigerian writer he wrote:
“There is a need for ‘poetry without poets.’ I am convinced that poetry, stripped of ego and pedantry, can be versatile enough to preserve its literary integrity and engage anyone who would not normally read or write poetry.
Poetry is an art, just like music, and if the ability to create music or even play a musical instrument is not a prerequisite for appreciating and enjoying good music, then the inability to write ‘good poetry’ or understand its intricacies must not deny anyone the pleasures of enjoying poetry.”
Although I believe that poetry should not deny its readers the pleasure of enjoying it, I think that we may need to draw a fine line between sentences, quotes, and poetry. Despite enjoying Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey, I agreed with the critics who said that might not have been poetry but mere sentences broken into stanzas and lines. While I didn’t like her second book: The Sun and Her Flowers, I felt as though that qualified better for what critics assume that poetry should be.
While hoping that Shakespeare and other poetic culprits that punished my teenage years would forgive contemporary lazy poets like Rupi Kaur and I, I have concluded that the definition of poetry is limitedly limitless… and like the saying, a city with no law has no sin, unless, this is a lawlessly lawful situation. These conclusions come with consequences such as what Rose Tremain said that I and many others can tolerate.
Additionally, I believe that beyond the way poems are worded, or sentences are broken into lines and what not, is the deep connection and simple understanding that art and its admirers deserve. A poem can be formed from a bunch of quotes, a 4-line poem can make the same impact as a 25-line poem, a poem without rhymes but with humor can be as interesting as a poem with rhymes but without humor. Beyond the argument of what poetry should be like, is the need for discussions about how contemporary poets have contributed to individuals from diverse continents by sharing thoughts in simple words and being relatable.
What I believe is unfair is that we tell artists, this is their freedom yet attempt to cage them in one perspective or that we assume because one contemporary poet wrote rubbish or something unlikable, all contemporary poets are rubbish writers that have made literary readers become like endangered species.
Lastly, while I wish Shakespeare owed me the responsibility of being relatable and likable, I have utilized my freedom and personal responsibility to buy and read books that I like; books that won’t provoke me to make false assumptions and generalizations that may be harmful to a demographic of writers.