Reading poetry again after reading years of culturally irrelevant poetry (because public high schools don’t actually want students to like reading poetry?) is always a surprise.
I liked English and literature classes in high school but poetry always seemed like a stody, irrelevant look at the world. Sure, some of it sounded pretty and philosophical:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
– Robert Frost
But plenty of it was completely trapped in times and places we no longer understood or could see the relevance of. And I’m sorry, but there are only so many times you can read about the beauty of a tree. I’m willing to be corrected but … Much of poetry in the high school reading cannon suffers from a lack of cultural relevance or insight. The world has changed. The old poetry is still old. This is probably why slam poetry is so fascinating: it spins on given moment, a slice of life as it is today. As an adult, I drifted away from any sort of poetry with only handful of exceptions: poetry found online or in dirty cafes, yelled at me from an angry person on a stage.
A year or two ago, I picked up Hold Your Own by Kate Tempest and was bowled over. Here was a contemporary writing things that were relevant, understandable, smart, cruel and a million other things. Because poetry is often about how you feel reading it, I find, rather than the about the specific meaning of an individual word.
I had a similar feeling reading Mortal Trash by Kim Addonizio. The entire slim volume is filled with a line or two here or there that left me nodding and feeling a sense of recognition. If poetry is interpretation, not everything will appeal to everyone, but when it does there is this sense of the poetry giving voice to things you felt and couldn’t find the words too. This is the magic of all writing. Poetry has an edge because it is visceral.
Addonizio’s ‘Applied Mathematics’ references hot-wings, giving money to Amnesty International, the number of stranded polar bears, “degrees of warming times new Cadillac Escalades.”
Marketing teams herding us into focus groups
and serving us antibiotic silage
before hammering a product
into our foreheads.
This poetry is relevant and reflective of society today. Today’s outrage is there. Addonizio reminds us. No one can say she’s not a bit outraged. We should all be a little more outraged than we are about life, especially when reading something like Applied Mathematics, which communicates the absurdity of what we value.
She pokes fun—not gently—at the unspoken rules of politeness in ‘Manners’.
Don’t say chick, which is demeaning
to the billions of sentient creatures
jammed in sheds, miserably pecking for millet.
And my favourite slice, in all of these wonderful words twisting up the world and spitting it out again:
I wonder it’s a problem
that I still believe what I did at five:
my stuffed animals are conscious beings
and love me with their big plastic eyes.”
Maybe it’s time to include some modern poets on high school reading lists. I’m not sure e.e. cummings still counts.