Real Poets Daily
Bringing a little beauty into the world. One post at a time.
Poetry is a sort of truancy, a dream within the dream of life, a wild flower planted among our wheat.”
Michael Oakeshott, The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind
Many of us are always looking for small ways to inject a little beauty into our everyday lives. Social media should be an ideal way to do this. Whether we like to admit it or not, most of us spend a good deal of time everyday scrolling—scrolling through posts that make us envious, angry, and all other kinds of unhealthy emotions. The simplest solution would be to quit cold turkey. Throw out your smart devices and live a more intentional life (I've considered this option myself from time to time). But there are problems with that. Grandparents would miss seeing your posts. You'd lose touch with some friends. And, lets face it, we just don't really want to take such drastic measures.
So a second, less drastic option, is to just follow better accounts. Accounts that are educational and that give us a little break from the envy and anger we experience on the rest of the timeline. On some platforms this is easy to do. Facebook has niche groups for every interest under the sun. Twitter can be harnessed to do some impressive things. But Instagram, at least for me, has proven very difficult on this front. Let's say you are a lover of poetry (you've read this far so it's a safe assumption) and you want to follow accounts that inject a little beauty into your timeline. If you search #poetry on Instagram you are not likely to find much. As I write this, here are the top three results for that search.
I lay bleeding
At the feet
you need nobody else
when your'e there for yourself
You cannot choose when to come in and out of someone's life
Stay with purpose or leave with purpose.
If you want to be something rare, be a good human.
This isn't exactly what I set out to look for. And since it seems to difficult to find real poetry, I decided to just start an account of my own.
One of the questions I get most over Instagram is some variation of "Who the hell do you think you are? Just because you're the sort of person who prefers thees and thous and doths doesn't mean you get to define what real poetry is for the rest of us." If that were all my criticism amounted to, they would have a point. But the issue isn't so simple. For one thing, I actually don't prefer thees and thous and doths in my poetry. I find most pre-18th century English poets unreadable without great concentration (but at least in the case of the greats, like Shakespeare or Dryden, I know that says more about me than about them).
So what do we mean by "real" poetry? To answer that we have to step back and ask what is the purpose of art. Rebecca West offered an answer in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon:
"Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted."
The best art is the art that teaches us what it means to be human. Or as W.H. Auden put it in his essay Psychology and Art Today, art can teach us "to unlearn hatred and learn love.” But it does so, as West's allusion to the sacrament makes clear, in a way that is a understandable, truthful, and human itself. Sometimes art does this explicitly and didactically, as in Ode 11 by Horace:
Leucon, no one’s allowed to know his fate,
Not you, not me: don’t ask, don’t hunt for answers
In tea leaves or palms. Be patient with whatever comes.
This could be our last winter, it could be many
More, pounding the Tuscan Sea on these rocks:
Do what you must, be wise, cut your vines
And forget about hope. Time goes running, even
As we talk. Take the present, the future’s no one’s affair.
Sometimes with a bit more subtlety, as when we are drawn into the grief of when King David Refuses to Mourn his Son, by Sarah Ruden:
2 Samuel 12:20-23
I’m dressed. The sky is stone, my path a sea.
I’m going to him, he won’t return to me.
I eat. The shattering waves have calmed the sea.
I’m going to him, he won’t return to me.
I worship, sowing grain across the sea.
I’m going to him, he won’t return to me.
These poems have something true to say to us about who we are and who we should be. Horace bids us to seize the day with patience, wisdom, and the stoic resignation that the present day is the only thing in our grasp. Ruden (retelling the familiar account from the Old Testament) shows us how to grieve, linking a deep spiritual longing with the quotidian motions of dressing, eating, and worshiping.
For contrast, lets compare a poem by an Instagram-poet. As I write this, I've gone to Rupi Kaur's Instagram page, who currently has 4 million followers who have propelled her to the best-seller's lists. Her third most recent published poem is this:
i do not want to have you
to fill the empty parts of me
i want to be full on my own
i want to be so complete
i could light a whole city
i want to have you
cause the two of us combined
could set it on fire
Let's leave aesthetics aside. Because we know this is free verse. We know it doesn't rhyme. We know it is accessible (perhaps pretentiously accessible). Let's instead talk instead about what this has to tell us. I'll start with something I think the poem gets right, which is that you can't wait around on romantic love to find fulfillment. We all know people who need to hear this message. But let's press the poem a bit further. What does it tell people to do instead of relying solely on romantic love? What does it mean to fill the empty parts of me? How does one do that? Can one really do it on one's own? What does it mean to light a whole city or to set it on fire?
The poem is too vague to answer most of these questions. It leaves the reader free to read their own desires and aspirations into the message. To "light a whole city" is a line that those with lust for money, power, or fame could all nod along to. Insofar as the poem does hint at an answer to any of these questions, it suggests that people can and should seek fulfillment on their own—not just without relying on romantic love, but without relying on anyone.
This is a rather banal, affluent, and liberal sentiment. In fact, it's so bland that it is hardly worth addressing. But that is ultimately what makes the poem so bad. It's not even an interesting or original falsehood—it's just the same pedestrian myth that is repeated in every television ad, every children's movie, every pop song, and every sitcom story arc about unrealistically attractive 43 year olds settling into marital happiness after decades of cultivating individualistic lifestyle habits. Rather than penetrating through the falsehoods most of us live by, and inviting us to know ourselves better, Kaur just repeats those falsehoods comfortingly back to us. She is like the playwrights that Samuel Johnson castigates in Drury-lane Prologue: "They pleas’d their age, and did not aim to mend."
In Intentions, Oscar Wilde famously quipped that "All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling." Kaur and her millions of readers undoubtedly have genuine feelings about her poetry. It's no use arguing that point. But we can ask if it's true—if it's real.
“Before you print a poem, you should reflect on whether this verse could be of use to at least one person in the struggle with himself and the world.”
Czeslaw Milosz, The Lie of Today's Poetry
Despite the pretentiousness inherent in a project like this, I'm actually not combing through quarterlies and checking author's qualifications to be a poet before I post their work. Nor am I drawing hard lines against free verse, the 21st century, or any other literary movement or category that it would be comfortable to denounce completely. Nor am I only posting acknowledged masters of antiquity (despite Raphael's fresco of Dante, Homer, and Virgil sitting at the top of this page). When I read a poem I like, or think may be of use to someone in their struggle with themselves or the world, I add it to the queue.
"Nothing puzzles me more than time and space, and yet nothing puzzles me less, for I never think about them."
Charles Lamb, Letter to Thomas Manning
I make every effort to post to the account every weekday. But, this is a project I've undertaken with my free time and I sometimes have less free time than others. I typically try to schedule a queue of posts several weeks in advance to avoid any gaps, but it doesn't always work out. There have been small gaps in posting, for instance, when I've been traveling, and longer gaps in the months after my wife and I experienced a miscarriage.
For such breaks in coverage I can't offer much of an apology. This is a labor of love and hobby for me. If you enjoy it, follow along. And bear with me.