Poetry is Pretentious
Two transformative events occurred to me this April, this National Poetry Month. The first was an enraptured reading of Dan Fox’s new book from Coffee House Press called Pretentiousness: Why it Matters. The second was rediscovering the magical word-jutsu of Saul Williams.
For most of my life, I’ve shied away from reading poetry. Not for any reason I have the ability to pinpoint, but it went at least as far back as an embarrassing ninth grade English class writing assignment. During this stretch of time, I understood poetry to be an overly simplistic and subjective art form (How horrendously misunderstood I was!) My neglect for seeking a greater understanding was two-fold: fear, and willful ignorance.
On the one hand, all the great artists who had ever emotionally stirred me were poets. Dylan, Tupac, Homer, Dante, Eliot, Whitman, Kanye. On the other hand, I disregarded any other poet as ‘preeeeteeeentioussss.’ Pitifully attempting to transmit their visceral experience through the rhythm of words. This contradiction was untenable.
Pretentious…we say that word as though it slips through the lips of Eden’s serpent. We lob that word as an insult to art forms that extend beyond our comprehension in an attempt to assuage our own self-doubt.
If not for the daring magicians who faced this accusation, of being called pretentious, with grace, bravery, and defiance, the world we inhabit would be devoid of great art. What if Picasso cowered rather than triumphed when he cubed the faces of his subjects? What if Basquiat bowed when the New York bums disgraced his cardboard canvas? What if Kanye succumbed to the pressure of his peers when they were laughin’ while he was rappin’ instead of strappin.’
We would all be lesser. Without.
There is a beautiful irony in believing that poetry is pretentious, in that it both is and is not. It is pretentious in that it stretches and extends the mind. Scribbles become words become concepts become thoughts become devoured by conscience. It is not pretentious in that it can be wholly and perfectly accomplished by everyone from a lanky, dopey ninth grader who had yet to grow into his own feet to a former mayor with a twitter feed.
Poetry is pretentious, but pretension is power.
A week from today, myself, my partner, and two lucky giveaway contest winners will be at the newly renovated James J Hill Reference Library to see Saul Williams perform his pretentious act of speaking truth to power through the art of poetry. I both hope and know that his performance will inspire me to find my voice, use these words, and become…