Sunday, August 5, 2007

Meanness in Poetry

I recently read Tony Hoagland's collection of essays, Real Sofistikashun. I found a great deal to be learned from the book and did a lot of underlining. One of the essays that especially resonated for me is the last one, "Negative Capability: How to Talk Mean and Influence People." I have a soft spot for tough, hard-talking poetry, but don't recall ever hearing or reading anything about meanness as an aspect of craft. Hoagland says, "Meanness, the very thing that is unforgivable in human social life, in poetry is thrilling and valuable...There is truth-telling, and more, in meanness." Yet do we dare?

A number of years ago someone told me that a woman brought my poem, "My Husband Discovers Poetry," to read in a workshop. One of the other women said that the poet--yes, me!--had to be a "mean-spirited" person to have written a poem like that. I had a mixed reaction. One was to cringe a bit. I'd like people to think I'm reasonably nice. The other reaction was delight. I'd been naughty and my little dagger had found the right spot. A third reaction: why was that woman judging the poet rather than the speaker? That, of course, was part of the delight. The voice I'd created must have been convincing.

Created, yes. Hoagland goes on to say, "Meanness is also an aesthetic asset for its flavor of danger. Nothing wakes us up like menace—menace refreshes. When a poem becomes aggressive, it rouses an excitement in us, in part because we see that someone has broken their social shackles." He asserts that it takes some courage to be "thought ill of." To be unwilling to take that risk is to cut yourself off from a large body of subject matter. Poetry suffers from too much "nice-ism." I wonder why this might be more true of poetry than of other art forms such as film and the novel?

Two mean poems that knocked me out when I first read them: Stephen Dobyns' "Bleeder," from Black Dog, Red Dog, and Stephen Dunn's "Tucson," from Loosestrife.

Hoagland gives this example from Anna Akhmatova:

Twenty-First. Night. Monday

Twenty-first. Night. Monday.
Silhouette of the capitol in darkness.
Some good-for-nothing—who knows why—
made up the tale that love exists on earth.

People believe it, maybe from laziness
or boredom, and live accordingly:
they wait eagerly for meetings, fear parting,
and when they sing, they sing about love.

But the secret reveals itself to some,
and on them silence settles down. . .
I found this out by accident
and now it seems I'm sick all the time.

But this isn't entirely mean, is it? I feel a lot of pain in there also. And I think it is that mixture that makes this such a compelling poem.

Try your hand at a mean poem if you haven't already done so. And be sure to read Hoagland's book. I strongly recommend it, for both its content and its example poems.


  1. Do you really think poetry suffers from nice-ism? I think it's just that too many versifiers think meanness in itself is craft, so that on average there are more well-crafted niceys floating around.

    And I think the argument about "My Husband..." was a bit off the mark - I think inexperienced poetry readers are sometimes so afraid of emotional power that they avoid it with labels like "too mean" or "too dark" (the "amateur" error of assuming fact in narration also suggests a somewhat shallow experience with the art).

  2. I think poetry suffers when the effort is to be nice for the sake of being nice. When it comes into the poem out of a fear of being perceived as not nice. I like to be uplifted, but I don't like to be forced to be uplifted. Jane Kenyon comes to mind as a poet who does both, ie, faces the darkness and still finds something positive (without forciing the latter).


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