Poet Marianne Moore: “I am hard to disgust, but a pretentious poet can do it.”
The Arts Building is a funny place. My friends and I, as much as we are part of the running joke, often poke fun at the legions of ‘seriously serious’ English students, eyes watery and far removed, seated in very open corners of lecture halls with a notebook and pen in hand as if they are not just about to hear the fallacies of Victorian sex life.
“This innate effort to be more than you are is also suggestive of an effort to romanticise the tedious yet very much necessary procession of English studies”
There is a certain pretentious air in the Arts Building that makes people quiver at the idea of positing Taylor Swift as a lyrical icon…or God forbid, Sally Rooney as a personal favourite. I do want to establish, though, before the whole Arts Building heckles me with tattered copies of A Journal of the Plague Year, that pretentiousness can sometimes be a necessity. The Cambridge Dictionary dubs “pretentiousness” as the “quality of trying to make yourself appear or sound more important or clever than you are.” This innate effort to be more than you are is also suggestive of an effort to romanticise the tedious yet very much necessary procession of English studies. After all, how does one really get through A Journal of the Plague Year without pretending to be one of writer Daniel Defoe’s contemporaries?
Still, the kind of pretension I endorse is not a mere “I am better than thou.” I must note that pretentiousness can be both a productive and stifling endeavour, not only an avenue for individual self-improvement, but also a means for putting others down. I write this piece with the premise of pretentious persons as those whose pretensions are byproducts of an effort to better themselves, where the occasional outburst serves as a sort of cathartic release for such undertakings.
“I would force myself to read the “real meat” of acclaimed, high-brow poetry collections. In the process, I completely forgot where I had started”
I, for one, am not to judge. In my high school years, I was “the poetry girl.” I would read poems at ungodly hours of dawn while my fellow classmates exchanged zombie-eyed “hellos” to one another. I recited poetry at prom instead of performing a silly group song or dance, which was clearly the more normal thing to do. I wanted to be a poet so bad and I knew that to be a good writer, I had to be a good reader too. This often meant that between the occasional Instagram poem, I would force myself to read the “real meat” of acclaimed, high-brow poetry collections. In the process, I completely forgot where I had started.
I was quickly humbled by a fellow teen writer when I posted a slam on Rupi Kaur’s poetry, knowing full well that a copy of The Sun and Her Flowers still sat on my shelf back home from my middle school poetry days. The quiet, collected comment sizzled beneath my rather loud and pompous tweet: “I think for a lot of people Rupi Kaur’s poems are an entryway into poetry. It’s how a lot of young writers get started in poetry.”
Throughout my high school years, I had to beg people to read poetry. I had to beg for their attention spans (poetry, despite being a short form, often requires more deliberation and because it is so compressed with meaning). I had to beg them to tolerate extensive speeches about how poetry could, in fact, be cool. But, what if I had been going about it all wrong? What if I didn’t have to start with attention spans at all?
“Before you know it, you will be cosplaying as Oscar Wilde, as I unintentionally did one Arts Building afternoon with my black wavy hair, starched shirt, and deep piercing eyes”
I recall a MasterClass video featuring the American poet Billy Collins, in which he advises to make the start of a poem relatively “easy” for readers to enter, to provide an “entryway” that would reel readers in. Perhaps this advice carries over to those just getting into poetry. Just as we start anything else, we can start with what captures our initial interest without too much mental sacrifice. Whether that means lightly dwelling on a poetic song lyric or a verse from Milk Without Honey: “we have been dying / since we got here / and forgot to enjoy the view,” start somewhere you can start. Before you know it, you will be cosplaying as Oscar Wilde, as I unintentionally did one Arts Building afternoon with my black wavy hair, starched shirt, and deep piercing eyes…
In all seriousness, do not fear poetry. More specifically, do not fear the over-zealous Arts Building nerds who preach nonsensical theories and scholastic journals on a Monday morning, for they too started with Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Let them romanticise to get to where they personally need to be. They are not “better than thou” but rather trying to feel better, for what would all that extra work mean if not some literary entitlement?
In the meantime, remind yourself that poetry does not have to be read or understood in a single sitting. The fact that poetry does not have a correct answer can be both a source of stress and relief, let it be one of relief. I love to tell people that there can be a time and place for poetry. There have been multiple instances where I have read a poem and found the piece hard to decipher. Then, weeks or even years later, I would read the poem again and suddenly the whole world of that poem would open up to me, oftentimes because it resonates so deeply with the way I’m experiencing the world at the moment. Let poems hang in their seasonal closets and come back to you. Let them be “a warm coat / when winter comes to cover you, / or like a pair of thick socks / the cold cannot bite through” as poet Jimmy Santiago Baca writes in one of my all-time favourite pieces, I Am Offering This Poem.
“Remember when poet Ocean Vuong penned: “the most beautiful part of your body is where it’s headed” and embrace that spear of pretension or, to be more forward, literary cringiness”
Sometimes, poetry will ask for considerable time and attention, but only when you are ready for it. Then and only then can you take your starched shirt out of the closet, don your gloomy Arts Building eyes, and let the storm of high-brow literature take you further than you could ever endeavour to take yourself. Remember when poet Ocean Vuong penned: “the most beautiful part of your body is where it’s headed” and embrace that spear of pretension or, to be more forward, literary cringiness.
Someday that “part of your body” will untether itself and you may actually find yourself enjoying poetry without the preachy veil of pretension. Perhaps you won’t even have to go through that phase at all. But, in the event that you do…….
don’t ever forget where you started.