Further Comments on Harsh Poetry

Eric Paul Shaffer sent a follow-up email in which he explains his sense of “harsh poetry”:

I can see there are some points you address that I would like to amplify in order to clarify the context in which I made them, especially the one about “poetry that is too harsh.” I meant that many editors are afraid of poems that they consider make judgments concerning humanity that might be offensive to humans so they usually shy away from those poems.

I didn’t mean that the poems in Albatross are “too harsh”; in fact, it is a relief to read work that encounters the planet as it actually is rather than the world as humans believe it is, beliefs they maintain in order to benefit and excuse themselves in the continuing attack on everything that is non-human on the planet.

As you can see from reading “Whales at Sunset,” I am not reluctant to indict humanity, not even myself, for its crimes, and that the editors thought my poem was too harsh, but I still think my indictment was accurate.

I am actually happy to characterize the poetry in Albatross as “harsh” from this point of view and also honored to be among those who aren’t afraid to publish poems that make harsh judgments. Many become defensive when faced with such “offensive” poetry (and strike back with their own level of harshness, calling names like “tree-huggers” and “enviro-wackos”), but my hope is that we can move beyond our fragile, personal egos and begin to consider the larger whole (the “interdependent web of all existence” as the Unitarian Universalists put it in their 7th Principle) of which we are a part.

Let me say that I get many many poems that are merely judgmental or didactic, without any art. The primary consideration, in my mind, is that the poem is beautiful in some way: it moves me, its language is accurate and honest and striking, it captures a fresh and refreshing perspective on a topic.

1 Comment

  1. May 12, 2008 at 11:17 pm

    I appreciated this further discussion of the meaning of the phrase “harsh poetry.” There are all sorts of ways of speaking the truth, or addressing reality, and I am glad to see a poet and an editor in agreement here about a viable way.

    Like you, Richard, I tend to shy away from the didactic and the judgmentmal these days, in myself as a human being and in art/my art. But I am glad to see poets and artists ready to take on the world, the real world, in their art, and hope I am, too!

    As a side note, I will be giving a poetry presentation to my local Unitarian church on July 27!

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