If we exclude Billy Collins and Mary Oliver, Ted Kooser is probably the most most accessible and well-read poet in America today. His advice for poets, which you can get for about four bucks used in The Poetry Home Repair Manual, is to risk being sentimental because at least one’s poetry won’t be dry and emotionless.
Since sentimentality cannot be objectively defined, no author can completely defend against it. The only way to be completely safe from the charge is to write with so much restraint that emotion is virtually excluded. And that of course leads to poetry that has no feeling…Each of us who writes must find a balance between restraint and expressions of feeling.
You know the kind of poetry Kooser is talking about–heavy with Greek allusions and clever for the sake of being clever. I don’t recommend writing this kind of poetry unless you can network your way into publication–say you’re a tenured professor at some mid-major college with a collection of friends and colleagues who are also tenured professors or editors at well-respected literary journals.
And even then, you better be clever–I’m talking Thomas Lux clever. Lux, who passed away last month at the age of 70, could write a poem about anything; every allusion worked and he was still accessible because–well, because he was Thomas Lux. Take for example, a few lines from his poem “Henry Clay’s Mouth”:
Senator, statesman, speaker of the House,
exceptional dancer, slim,
graceful, ugly. Proclaimed, before most, slavery
an evil, broker
of elections (burned Jackson
for Adams), took a pistol ball in the thigh
in a duel, delayed, by forty years,
with his compromises, the Civil War,
gambler (“I have always
paid peculiar homage to the fickle goddess”),
boozehound, ladies’ man — which leads us
to his mouth, which was huge,
a long slash across his face,
with which he ate and prodigiously drank,
with which he modulated his melodic voice,
with which he liked to kiss and kiss and kiss.
You’re not Thomas Lux, so don’t even attempt it trying a poem like this.
Instead, risk being sentimental. It’s okay. Be yourself. Write about the things you care about, the things that would have to come out even if you never saw another one of your poems published. It’s sound advice in a world of a hundred million poets, where the poetry of celebrities outsells Pulitzer-winning poets any day of the week.