Boredom with Poetry? Poetry on Boredom

JSA Lowe

Dec 23, 2011

Recently a friend entrusted me with an honest confession: "I want to like poetry? but honestly I find it kind of boring." NB by the way that my friend is no intellectual lightweight--on the contrary, this person is educated; sensible of philosophers from Leibniz to Nietzsche; interested in travel, languages, programming, culture and media; and highly trained in mathematics and the physical sciences. The admission did somewhat surprise me, as I've for so long considered poetry to be the humanities equivalent of theoretical physics: a condensed compression, like an equation, expressing the intersecting and impossibly complex relation of parts such as time, space, matter, and motion. I have believed that a poem could function in many ways like a function, accepting a reader's input as part of its argument and expressing a value in return. Is this pretend-mathematical, and too sloppy? Very likely. But I've considered one of Hopkins's "terrible sonnets" to be roughly equal to one of Maxwell's equations: an encapsulation that, when dropped into a human mind, will unfurl like one of those miniature sponge-animals in a glass of water. After he admitted this, I was silent for a moment, contemplating what seemed to me the complete and total failure of education to make poetry vivid and meaningful to people. Of course I encounter the same kind of confession, albeit less sensitively phrased, among my first-year college students: "In high school we had to read Romeo and Juliet! It was a waste of time! It was boring!" Personally I can't imagine how you can possibly make Shakespeare boring; but apparently it has been done, and repeatedly, to Texas high schoolers. And to people like my friend, who expressed particular disinterest in anything by the swan of Avon: "I understand that the characters are archetypal, but they don't interest me." I could only say that it's the language I find endlessly compelling, the fact that those 38 works are long poems poorly disgused as plays. Of all the grave wrongs which formal education perpetrates (including the criminal failure to teach critical thinking), this seems to me among the worst--that people should be shut off from so much pleasure, from one of the highest orders of intellectual enjoyment--and from a pursuit which is also completely basic and natural to being a person. Rhythm, music, image, language-play: small children know this, do this: make poems, recite them, teach them to each other. Then something terrible happens. Immediately I began to try to think of "starter poems"--lagniappes, amuse-bouches, something to convince a new or casual reader that there is a reason people like me get so exercised about the whole attempt. Song lyrics came to mind as obvious firsts, as did rhymed-and-metered poems I memorized as a teenager without trying--though most of them seemed pretty silly from the perspective of a serious-minded adult. Frost, "Fire and Ice"; Browning, "My Star"; Larkin, "This Be the Verse"--were these really the best I had to offer someone who didn't understand why poems were not only resonant but important? And other equally memorable poems that mean more to me--say, Auden's "September 1, 1939" or any of Thomas Hardy's Poems of 1912-13½wouldn't those be too advanced to serve as an entrée into poetry's difficult music? Then my brain took a strange leap½from poems which are allegedly boring, to poems about boredom. Could a poem about the sensation of boredom itself perhaps be stimulating? Isn't one of the most exciting things about Beckett's stage work, for example, the fact that all those words about stultifying existential ennui aren't in themselves boring in the least? That you can feel completely enthralled watching two people sit around talking about something that never happens? So in that spirit--here are three poems about boredom. And if, as Shakespeare wrote in King John, "Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale / Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man," perhaps poems about life don't have to be as dull as life itself often seems. To Boredom I'm the child of your rainy Sundays. I watched time crawl Over the ceiling Like a wounded fly. A day would last forever, Making pellets of bread, Waiting for a branch On a bare tree to move. The silence would deepen, The sky would darken, As Grandmother knitted With a ball of black yarn. I know Heaven's like that. In eternity's classrooms, The angels sit like bored children With their heads bowed. --Charles Simic (2007) * Bored All those times I was bored out of my mind. Holding the log while he sawed it. Holding the string while he measured, boards, distances between things, or pounded stakes into the ground for rows and rows of lettuces and beets, which I then (bored) weeded. Or sat in the back of the car, or sat still in boats, sat, sat, while at the prow, stern, wheel he drove, steered, paddled. It wasn't even boredom, it was looking, looking hard and up close at the small details. Myopia. The worn gunwales, the intricate twill of the seat cover. The acid crumbs of loam, the granular pink rock, its igneous veins, the sea-fans of dry moss, the blackish and then the graying bristles on the back of his neck. Sometimes he would whistle, sometimes I would. The boring rhythm of doing things over and over, carrying the wood, drying the dishes. Such minutiae. It's what the animals spend most of their time at, ferrying the sand, grain by grain, from their tunnels, shuffling the leaves in their burrows. He pointed such things out, and I would look at the whorled texture of his square finger, earth under the nail. Why do I remember it as sunnier all the time then, although it more often rained, and more birdsong? I could hardly wait to get the hell out of there to anywhere else. Perhaps though boredom is happier. It is for dogs or groundhogs. Now I wouldn't be bored. Now I would know too much. Now I would know. --Margaret Atwood (1994) * Dream Song 14 Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so. After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns, we ourselves flash and yearn, and moreover my mother told me as a boy (repeatingly) "Ever to confess you're bored means you have no Inner Resources." I conclude now I have no inner resources, because I am heavy bored. Peoples bore me, literature bores me, especially great literature, Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes as bad as Achilles, who loves people and valiant art, which bores me. And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag and somehow a dog has taken itself & its tail considerably away into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving behind: me, wag. --John Berryman (1969)