On the crapiness of poetry
I once walked into a bookstore with the sole purpose of buying a book by a poet I didn't know. The second-best poets are the poets which put words on things you didn't know there were words for; who with their letters repaint and solidify your own experience, giving it new light. Like tarot cards, these poets reshuffle your view even when there's no magic involved. To me, Orhan Veli, a Turk, was such a second-best poet and Allen Ginsberg, an American. But I walked into this bookstore intent on finding a Norwegian poet who had new words for old things I had experienced. In short; I was looking for a poet who could paint experiences characteristic of my generation; the rythm of trance music, the movement of subway tunels as seen through stoned eyes, the shifting of pixels under the hand. I had discovered that in my own experience of love, a flower was simply a decorative object, whereas the "you have mail!" ping of Eudora contained endless subtleties and recollections.
My search was methodical. I went from the top of the poetry shelf, to the bottom, browsing through each volume looking at keywords, reading a single poem. A lot of the texts were classics, poets writing in metaphors of a nature I had never known, childhood recollections of cities I had never lived in, fiery call-to-arms for revolutions not my own. I learned how to discern the new poetry from the classics; the new poets wrote thinner books (or weren't published in collections), and their cover art was markedly different. I looked through these more carefully.
Working my way from A to Å I discovered no deviance from the pattern of the classics; the words were the words poets used, not the ones I used, the metaphors were of things alien to me and probably to the poet as well. For every new book, no matter how promising the layout or the title, the disappointment grew greater. In the end, I bought two novels and an English non-fiction, and walked out of the bookstore thinking that I would not be sympathetic the next time someone complained Norwegians had stopped reading poetry.
Half a year later, I find this book of Norwegian poetry I had bought when I was 19 to fit with the image of a young poetry-reading intellectual, and then forgotten. I flicked through the pages, this was six years later, and realised I had found my book. It was "Du dør så langsomt at du tror du lever" by Bertrand Besigye, from Uganda.
As a second-best poet his words were immediately recognizable. They fit with my own experiences. I could use them as index-cards to memories, as new angles on old problems.
But I found none of the very best poets in that shelf, and there is only one in my own. The very best poets are the poets whose words create immediate recognition of things you have never seen, experiences you have never had. I can nod in agreement with Allen Ginsberg when he writes of those "who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat / up smoking in the supernatural darkness of / cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities / contemplating jazz", because I've actually been there above the city and if you don't know what I'm talking about it's becuase you're not me. But I was never in that station of the Metro where Ezra Pound wrote:
The apparation of those faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough