Intellectual Snobbery and the Poetry Police by DENavarro
A while back, I had a run in with the Poetry Police. I got pulled over for excessive adjectives. The officer liked my poem but wrote me a ticket for too
many modifiers. He said it was necessary if I wanted to be a serious poet.
Bah! I had to laugh, which confirms that I am not a serious poet, but rather a seriously lighthearted one. In response to my poem, Symphonic Forest, the
Essentially, I like this poem. However, it gets bogged down and diluted a bit with the use of too many adjectives. Wordiness might be forgiven, given the
nature of a symphonic score in terms of notes. But the thing about telling rather than showing is that it leaves very little space for the reader to expand
his/her participation in the art of reading poetry.
The comment itself wasn’t necessarily that bad and I really wasn’t offended. I have received far sharper criticisms of my work than this. Being an avid
and dedicated student of everything poetry, I am well aware of the academic, scholarly, or conventional recommendation to eliminate adjectives from prose
and poetry, and to use the technique called show, don’t tell. So I knew where he was coming from, but I also knew how such scholarly admonitions are often
taken to extremes by overly zealous writers and then misapplied.
So fair enough, I made my response:
Thanks for essentially liking my poem and commenting on it. I disagree with you on the adjectives. The number of all adjectives and adverbs together is
18, and all the nouns (37) and verbs (18) together are 55. Most of the 18 adjectives and adverbs used are specifically needed, such as the numbers and
time and place modifiers that clarify and detail information that cannot be shown. However, the gerunds should be eliminated. The rest of the poem is saturated
in strong nouns and verbs that more than compensate.
All was fine, until I got a response back from him. He was upset that I thought 18 modifiers to 37 nouns were not excessive. By his standards and those
he had learned from the accepted poetry elite, this was still a far too excessive ratio, never mind what the individual poem set out to do.
I then responded:
Who in the world are these people who think that they can set irrefutable standards upon poetry and then declare that their own invented or arrived at
standards are the only proper and correct ones for poetry?
Poetry has suffered and fallen out of favor with the people because literary snobbery has railroaded the art and made it untouchable and esoteric. I’m
part of a movement of poets and poetry for the people, for those who once again just want to enjoy sounds, language, word-art and word-textures, beats
and cadences, rhymes and all that makes poetry great.
We enjoy all poetry—contemporary, modern, experimental, classical and traditional—and we put no constraints on anyone as to what is or is not a proper
Some will say we do a disservice to poetry. I say they do a disservice to poetry by wanting it to conform to their modern expectations. They have turned
millions of readers away from the art. People hate poetry because it is not fun, it is difficult, esoteric, cryptic, and out of touch.
We are promoting poetry and the writing arts in English worldwide. We are reaching people—people who love poetry and want to be a part of a poetry movement
that demands accessible poetry that is rich and layered but can be understood and enjoyed.
His next response was even more livid, so I decided to be more direct and clear in my response:
The extremism of intellectual snobbery stole the art of poetry away from the people and we are a movement of people taking poetry back as an art form to
be shared and enjoyed amongst the people in open forums like it used to be in the ages before it was hijacked. The folks who sat in pubs, clubs and cafés
and performed their poetry like we are doing again today did not send it through some literary perfection and acceptance process where it could be signed
off by the intellectual elite who were in control of what poetry is or is not supposed to be.
Some of my favorite poems, the most well beloved of ages, widely published and shared around the world and in the highest literary and academic circles,
defy and break the modern rules of poetry time and again.
Why? Because what mattered was the heart and presentation of the poem, and if a poem worked with a few extra adjectives, then darn it, it worked, so accept
it and enjoy it—quit analyzing it to shreds and making it untouchable to the common man and woman.
Then I got the bright idea of selecting a beloved poet of the recent past, the modern era, and breaking down one of his popular poems into adjectives,
adverbs, nouns and verbs just like I had done to my poem, just to see how well it would match up to the exacting standards of the Poetry Police.
The first well known poem I came across had 14 adjectives and adverbs, 17 nouns, and 14 verbs for a ratio of 14 to 31. The ratio for my poem was 18 to
55. So this modern poet’s ratio was worse than the ratio for my poem, Symphonic Forest.
So who is this supposed miserable poet who defied convention and the Poetry Police by using all this weak and ineffective verbiage in his poem? How can
he claim to be a poet? He has not met the rocket science standards of poetry. Surely this is some back alley poem by an illiterate person claiming to be
What celebrated poem is this? It is, The Back Door.
And who is this celebrated poet?
Born in Ames, Iowa, in 1939, Ted Kooser is one of Nebraska’s most highly regarded poets and a Poet Laureate of the United States. He earned a BS at Iowa
State University in 1962 and the MA at the University of Nebraska in 1968. He is the author of ten collections of poetry and winner of the 2001 Nebraska
Book Award for poetry. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, The Hudson Review, The Kenyon Review, Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah,
and elsewhere. His poems appear regularly in textbooks and anthologies currently in use in secondary schools and college classrooms across the country.
He has earned too many awards and distinctions to list and won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He recently taught as a Visiting Professor in the English
department of the University of Nebraska — Lincoln.
So it was Ted Kooser, a distinguished scholar of academia itself, who dared to write this poetry that didn’t conform to the extremist’s notions and presumptions
of what academia’s standards were supposed to be.
No, it is not academia’s fault that the Poetry Police exist and fight against the art and craft of poetry; it is those who take academia to an extreme
that fight against the rest. Ted Kooser was a man considered to be a poet of the people who also achieved high academic and scholarly standards and it
didn’t ruin him.
So if you ever run into the Poetry Police and intellectual academic snobbery, remember not to blame all academia for the extremism of a few lest you become
a rebel without a cause and find yourself fighting against the art and craft of poetry from the other extreme. *****
by: DE Navarro, © 2014, NavWorks Press. Permission is granted for this essay, Intellectual Snobbery and the Poetry Police, to be copied and posted or published
freely anywhere as long as this byline, copyright mark, link, and permission statement are included with the essay.