The Prose with the Navel Tattoo: Or, Why My Parents Still Don't Understand Poetry

Before I start my longer consideration for today, I just wondered if anyone else noticed Victoria Chang's appearance in the "Letters to the Editor" section of the current issue of Poetry.

Anyway, I was thinking today about my parents.

No matter how I often I share with my parents the poems I write, I continually get the same response: "I don't get it." Initially, they seemed interested, wanted to learn more, but as time has gone on and I've strayed further and further from traditional markers of narrative, their zeal has decreased. I could be writing in Greek, or assaulting them with step-by-step instructions on how to effectively remove pet hair from between couch cracks.

This is not necessarily a fault of my parents. Both of them are voracious readers. My dad tends to fall on the side of biography and historical writing (but not fiction), while my mom mainly enjoys romance novels, mysteries, and contemporary fiction a la John Grisham et al.

I recently showed my parents the long, fractured, footnoted poem I wrote that really confronts our experiences when I came out to them. My mom tried reading it for five minutes, asked me a brief grammar question, ("Shouldn't it be 'he knocked on the door?' Otherwise I don't get it."), then gave it to my dad. Surely they haven't finished it.

Americans, by and large, crave narrative. Require narrative. Narrativize.

Nightly news broadcasts are sort of lyric in their structure—involving meditations on events—but do not stray too far from explaining chans of events. 97% of American films have a discernable beginning, middle, and end—and in order to make money, every film must have a story (even 21 Grams, the most successful, non-traditionally narrative film in recent history, is beholden ultimately to its story arc). America's bottomless appetite for Reality TV stems from the impulse to narrativize taken to an oppressive level: now even REAL LIFE must have a narrative arc or is worthless.

Lyric poetry, because of its strange relationship to time, has no need for narrative. Narrative can play there, but narrative need not be present for the lyric to function.

American brains like narrative because of the clearly delineated mathmetical equation it creates: A + B + C = D. And we are trained from an early age to read narratives forward and backward: arriving at point D, we can easily read back and determine the nature and role of occurrences A, B, and C in bringing out point D. Americans place value on value: each term stands for something, has a place in the overall greater economy of time, and therefore remains meaningful. This is probably a direct result of a stridently delineated class consciousness, the inborn "American" desire to gain wealth (money is, of course, the ultimate value—a completely valueless term given infinitely determinate value).

Americans turn up their noses to lyrical poetry because they force its square peg into a round hole. What is there to cull from literature if not theme, cause-and-effect, etc? The typical American prefers poetry to have meter and rhyme because those aural terms, when narrative is absent, ultimately become more meaningful than the words themselves.

Ultimately, poetry isn't playing on the same court as the novel, as the newspaper, as your latest issues of US Weekly or Men's Fitness. But Americans want it to. Because, after all, what's the point of joining game in the third period? And Americans—well, we hate sitting on the bench.


  1. For Americans, you can say North Americans.
    But then there are lineups around block for every American blockbuster all around the world, so the fantasy of A+B+C=D is spreading wide, blocking out all else. Points well made, Charles.

  2. I think we may have the same parents. Brother, is that you?

    Actually, I get the "I don't get it" too much, but yes, only when I wander off the narrative path. But to be honest, I may crave narrative too. Maybe I just crave stories, that validation of saying "yes, I understand."

    I think it goes back to childhood, not wanting to be the kid in the class with her hand up saying "I don't know what you're talking about." There is a level of trust with that type of lyrical poetry and some people are afraid to risk it.

    Of course, when you do find someone who is writing in a way that you just want to listen, you give it all up and just become part of the words. I think that is poetry at its best, not feeling as if you have to "get it," but realizing you are being gently handled by the poet... no fear no fear.

    It figures that in my first comment to you, I am writing as if I'm on some sort of anti-depressant. (I'm not.) Just up late and enjoying your blog.

  3. Charlie, look what it took me a year to figure out how to do. You showed them that poem... I didn't know that. I wonder if they get it more than they know how to say. Responding to something lyric is much more difficult, in this culture, than responding to narrative. Most north americans have some words around narrative, and almost no words around things smacking lyric. It must be at least as intimidating to not know what to say as it is to try to approach a lyric poem, for some (generally) non poetry reading parents. I'm just thinking about mine, you know, as I write. And then I project. Love, S.

  4. Just wanted to say, happy Turkey day! ttyl sweetie.