When I first encountered contemporary poetry, I was pushed into a troubling space where trying to figure out one central theme left me baffled. Thanks to academic conditioning, I was one of those poetry readers who could quickly pinpoint the main idea and then earn accolades for doing so, not realizing that somehow enjoying poetry had become secondary in the process. This is when I was introduced to John Ashbery’s “Paradoxes And Oxymorons” where he writes, “you have it but you don’t have it / you miss it, it misses you / you miss each other.” This poem changed my perception of poetry.
Poetry is supposed to be a drifting experience that we won’t always be able to grasp. This feeling of floating around, the dreamlike associative state we get into while reading poetry, is something I was trying hard to resist as years of academic training have taught me to be mechanical with my interpretations.
After exploring contemporary poetry, I am finally learning to give away my need to find one singular theme. I have also been learning how to think, process, be attentive, and half-dream simultaneously instead of being too focused on detecting one central idea and being the first to raise my hand in English class.
In Why Poetry, Matthew Zapruder writes, “Poetry is a constructed conversation on the frontier of dreaming. It is a mechanism by which the essential state of reverie can be made available to our conscious minds.” In academia, the importance of this state of reverie often goes unaddressed. This leaves readers feeling that the dreamlike state created by poetry is a flaw, rather than something to be treasured.
The urge to break things down into comprehensible bits is foundational to academia and often defeats the promise and purpose of poetry. This is where contemporary poetry wins. Through notable images and language that’s at once lyrical and sharp, Vietnamese American poet Ocean Vuong launches an exploration of his family history, complicated interpersonal relationships, and the after-effects of war and trauma.
Vuong shows that there is no retreat from reality or the world we inhabit. He doesn’t try to evade or resist reality. What he does instead is reimagine and recombine the real to create content for his poems, all the while maintaining the drifting experience that poetry is meant to offer, through his striking choice of words. He recaptures the precious awareness that poetry is supposed to bring into life — the reveries existing beneath the surface of our everyday existence: “I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because. But I wasn’t trying to make a sentence — I was trying to break free.”
Through his poems, he rearranges the ordinary and the extraordinary into new forms while preserving the state of a waking dream so that the readers can understand their lives and themselves better. He isn’t trying to escape his lived experiences, but rather crafting a different kind of engagement with them.
The same can be said about Richard Siken’s poetry. His cinematic imagery, unwavering narrative voice, and rich take on human minds recreate a dreamlike quality that reels the readers right into the confusion of love. For example:
“I’ve been rereading your story. I think it’s about me in a way that might not be flattering, but that’s okay. We dream and dream of being seen as we really are and then finally someone looks at us and sees us truly and we fail to measure up. Anyway: story received, story included.”
Siken is asking us to put an end to the emptiness of language, as is often seen in poetry texts prescribed by academia. To talk about the human condition in all its depth.
Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things is another example where her flowing narrative style and quiet revelations feel almost surreal and dreamlike. She not only acknowledges the uncontrollable forces of nature but also tries to harness them here. The movement from quiet observations to bold declarations represents the timelessness of this collection.
The speaker navigates her beliefs, her past, and the world she is a part of with an innocent yet confident voice: “Here it is: the new way of living with the world inside of us so we cannot lose it, and we cannot be lost. You and me are us and them, and it and sky.” I read this as Limón urging us to embrace a new way of living, that is, break out of academic snobbery and let poetry be ours in the truest sense.
She connects her everyday moments with her deep-seated anxieties that sometimes borders on mental claustrophobia. This collection unfolds just like human thoughts do in a semi-conscious state of mind. Her poems weave together abstract language with solid images, that further bolster its dreamlike aspect. Be it love or loss, she has deftly portrayed the unknown that lies both within and outside the human mind.
The bottom line is academia robs poetry of its joy that contemporary poets are working towards restoring. Not everything needs to be broken down till the essence is lost. And not everything needs to abide by a conventional set of inflexible rules. More importantly, not everything needs to be boxed.
If you’d like to delve deeper into the world of contemporary poetry check out 8 Poetry Collections From 2021 To Read Right Now.