I’ve found that it often takes a while for a poem to circulate, let alone a whole collection getting its feet under itself. “Young” poets are often in their 30s and 40s, and books languish with low sales, years between second printings (if the book is lucky enough for a second print). Poetry, for a number of reasons not relevant here, has gotten somewhat of a bad reputation as the activities of depressives, wimps, or the self-absorbed. While I’m sure there are depressives, wimps, and self-absorbed poets out there, some of our greatest poems are, in essence, hymns; they are praises to the small and the great of our lives. See the work of Ilya Kaminski, for example, in his collection Dancing in Odessa. While he doesn’t shy away from tragedy or flinch when recalling brutality, the poems are, strangely at times, expositions in the human ability to love and persevere regardless of the external circumstances. This is but one example of some poetry that refuses to buckle. Instead, the poems witness without despair. It’s powerful stuff and not the “Woe is me” so many readers expect from their verse.
On the wimpfront: False. I have seen poets fight. Some of them are good at it. Scarier yet, many of those who are good at it, enjoy doing it. But that’s neither here nor there. Consider a better form of non-wimp in Frederico Garcia Lorca who, for debatable motives, was executed in Spain. Or Russian poet Osip Mandelstam who was arrested twice by Soviet forces and ultimately died in a transit camp where he was being held for “counter-revolutionary activities.” Here’s a fragment of an untitled poem from 1937, a year before his death:
You’re still alive, you’re not alone yet—
she’s still beside you, with her empty hands,
and a joy reaches you both across immense plains
through mists and hunger and flying snow.
Opulent poverty, regal indigence!
Live in it calmly, be at peace.
Blessed are these days, these nights,
and innocent is the labor’s singing sweetness.
Miserable is the man who runs from a dog
in his shadow, whom a wind reaps at the knees,
and poor the one who holds out his rag of life
to beg mercy of a shadow.
Translated from Russian by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin, the poem captures the desperation of the speaker’s plight while balancing the hope found in the speaker’s female companion’s “empty hands.” Definitely a not-wimp.
As for self-absorption, well, that’s endemic, and you can hardly blame poets alone for a flaw such as this.
This brief take is, of course, not meant to be comprehensive. Nor is it meant to be taken too seriously. My main hope is that we can scrap the whole high school memorization of a Shakespeare sonnet forced upon us by well-meaning but ill-informed teachers. Poetry can be a vital energy for our aesthetic and moral development; it can slow us down long enough to see the poetry in our lives, in the grind of the predawn garbage truck, in the call of a far-off dog barking down the moon.