Thoughts on “Personal poetry”
by Volodymyr Bilyk

A couple of days ago I’ve stumbled upon a Facebook post criticizing the so-called “personal poetry” and its seeming “overabundance” in the literary outlets. 

It was mostly a derogatory post dismissing the concept as some sort of “conspiracy of bland”, but it made me thinking – why do some people have such a distaste for this kind of poetry while the others enjoy it?

So here’s what I’ve come up with.

“Personal poetry” is an umbrella term describing instances of poets doing some sort of introspective writing regarding personal experiences. 

This kind of writing is often subjected to criticism due to seeming “egocentrism” and lack of aesthetic innovation or experimentation. At the same time, this kind of writing is praised for its exploration and interpretation of personal experience and its explication to the outside. Quite a contrast, right?

So why some people really don’t like it? Because it doesn’t fit their frame of mind. And you can’t argue with that – it is not very productive. 

One of the things you learn as you grow up is that the world doesn’t revolve around you – and it is better to accept that fact of life and get over it because it isn’t going to change. That’s why you need to undertand other perspectives and as such, it is important to keep an open mind and perceive things at their own merit. 

Because of that, the very notion of aggressive criticism targeted at inherent features of something seems to me like childish tribalism rooted in personal preference. There are many ways of writing and none of them is “right” or”truer” or “better” than any other. Some it “works” for you and some “don’t” and it is what it is.

Now, let’s get back to “personal poetry” thing. 

Is there an “overbearing” “overabundance” of “personal” poetry in the literary outlets? Probably not, but poetry with introspective angle maintains more consistent mainstream exposure. 

Why? 

Because its narrative doesn’t revolve around “poetry” (which is deemed a “niche” thing by the mainstream perception) as “thing in itself” and instead focuses on the personality and experience which are evergreen content subjects that audiences can get behind. 

The problem with marketing poetry is that people often perceive is “full of itself” and “written for sake of being written”. “Personal poetry” avoids that and thus gets the cake of audience attention.

Here’s how it goes, “personal poetry” is “relatable” to the “target audience,” thus outlets can “market” it more easily than other kinds of poetry. Therefore, it is “valued more” by the “outlets” as “content”. So it gets more “exposure”; thus, it can be “related” and “marketed” more. A vicious circle of sorts.  

In its heart, it is a consumerist-driven thing. The “relatability” mostly refers to being more accessible to consume than other works of poetry. 

For example, marketing works of bpNichol or e.e. cummings require extensive contextualization and commentary to explain its value proposition to the reader who is most likely unaware of it – stuff like historical context, explaining the artistic methods, the use of language. That’s a lot and probably too much to handle for the unaware reader. In contrast, “personal poetry” doesn’t need that. The focus is on themes, the experience, the prism of personality – naturally, it is something more people can stand and give chance to.   

In a nutshell, “personal poetry” is better equipped to attract straightforward narratives that click with people on a different level than “what is usually considered poetry”. It is less about poetry “as it is” and more about “contributing an entry into an overarching narrative.” That thing clicks with the people and paves the way for the content that explores the narrative. 

In other words, it is a matter of sequence of presentation. There is a kind of algorithmic perception that paves the way for resonating with the audience – a combination of keywords and phrases – means of broadly reflecting the conceptual query and getting past the “perception threshold”.

“Real poetry aficionados” usually have problem with it, because that’s not “what poetry is about”. Even though it is shortsighted and impulsive way of looking at things. 

That’s where the “umbrella term problem” occurs.

The thing is – the very concept of poetry is very ambiguous. It is a lot of things. Mainly because the indicators\qualifiers of what poetry is and isn’t are informal and doesn’t mean much. However, “real poetry aficionados” pretend features of poetry are dogmatic and if “it doesn’t fit – it is not a thing”. Cue childish tribalism. 

In the “real poetry aficionados” eyes, “personal poetry” went overboard and transformed into something else – it is more of a “spilling your guts\proving your point with a formatted text” kind of expression than “actual poetry”. In a way, it is like mistaking copywriting with the actual writing. Both look similar but function differently but some people still try to judge one by other’s terms.

From this point of view, “personal poetry” showcases a transmutation with marketing storytelling and public speaking. The fact that it looks like poetry doesn’t mean it is functionally a piece of poetry. But people consume it as “poetry” because it is presented as “poetry.” And it is kinda “poetry” because lots of people consider it so – it is similar to treating bottle caps like money.  

Except, it is bullshit way of saying “i don’t like it and i don’t understand why other people like it”. 

As an editor of Ex Ex Lit and Brave New Word, I’ve noticed that my personal preferences mostly hamper my ability to efficiently curate material and evaluate submissions. In the end, it is not about me and the only thing that really matters is whether a piece manages to pull off what it is trying to do and is able to communicate it to the reader. 

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P.S.: Imagine militant sound poetry aficionados soundly rejecting verbally coherent writing as one that indulges interpretation and perspective and corrupts the purity of nondescript abstraction. I’ve seen these folks, they were meaning it. Then there were folks who embraced the “fleeting poetry” of bureaucratic writing – you get the point. 

P.P.S.: The only more or less coherent definition refers to what poetry actually does – “explores aesthetic features of language within context”. Here’s how my old teacher Bilous put it – poetry is “a tool to explore and interpret language and culture” “by means of storytelling, language games, deconstruction and defamiliarization”. 

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