I just had the conversation again. I know, I know, it happens to all of us, and it’s not my fault. But still, I’m sitting here feeling like I did something wrong. Something cruel, even. It’s happened to me a thousand times, and probably you too, and it’s going to happen to us many more thousands of times, because as far as we can tell there’s just no other logical thing to say. I’m talking, of course, about those four seemingly innocent words that we all keep saying, and almost always end up feeling bad about ourselves for saying.
Someone told me they like poetry, and I asked “Who do you read?”
Obviously, I don’t need to tell you what happened next. The person’s face drained of color, her jaw dropped, and she started frantically making eye contact with the other people in the room, who were all staring at me as if I’d just asked her which religion she thinks is the most evil or what shape she shaves her pubes into. She looked at the floor and mumbled something that did not involve stating the actual names of any specific poets, and then I got embarrassed and changed the subject.
Since I’ve said that this happens to me over and over, you’d think I would have learned by now to just never ask someone what poets they read, no matter how much they say they like poetry. But I don’t stop, simply because I can’t believe I keep meeting so many people who say they like poetry—who bring it up themselves first—and then act totally blindsided and put out when I ask them who their favorite poets are. I don’t meet musicians who freak out when I ask who their favorite band is. I don’t meet aspiring actors or directors who crap themselves upon being asked to list a few of their favorite movies. Hell, it’s not even a quiz—this is the most obvious way that you would make conversation with someone who has just stated an affinity for a particular art form. Why is it only ever a problem when the art form being discussed is poetry?
I concede that maybe “Who are your favorite poets?” is a weird question to ask an eight-year old. But this person wasn’t an eight-year old. Like most of the people I end up inadvertently freaking out with this question, she was a college graduate who had studied writing and started a conversation about poetry with me. Was it not totally sensible of me to expect her to have an answer to this question? Fine, I realize she didn’t go to graduate school for poetry, but I wasn’t asking something so complicated that advanced study would be a prerequisite to having an opinion. I didn’t hand her a blue book and ask her to write an essay about how contemporary female poets under 40 are using the plain-speech surrealism of Ashbery as a springboard to inject the trappings of feminist literary theory with humor while recentering their discourse around a renewed belief in the power of a flesh-and-blood selfhood borrowed from the Confessionals, linking all this to the supposed “death of irony” effected by the September 11th attacks. I just asked her who she likes. That is a pretty open-ended question, and I wasn’t going to judge her on whether her answer was sufficiently outré. My favorite poet is Lord Byron, for pete’s sake; that’s not exactly obscure.
You don’t even necessarily have to respond with a ranked list. Any comment having to do with poetry is a perfectly acceptable response. “I think early Eliot is charming but late Eliot is a chore.” “I don’t understand why Edna St. Vincent Millay isn’t as popular with teens as Sylvia Plath.” “In my heart I know Ginsberg was bullshitting 90% of the time but I still love him.” “I really dug that book Louise Glück put out a few years ago with all the poems about Persephone in it.” All of these responses are fine. Like with any other conversation, all you really have to do at this point is say something next, which can take pretty much any form at all other than looking at the floor and implying that I am a dick for asking you this question.
If “who are your favorite poets” isn’t what you expect to be asked next when you tell a poet that you like poetry, then what do you expect to be asked next? I honestly can’t think of another way to move the conversation forward from that point. Seriously, if you say “I like poetry,” but you can’t name any actual poets, then what do you even mean when you say that? That you like the idea of the existence of poetry, as a concept? I guess it’s fine if that’s what you meant. I suppose I’m glad that you are in favor of the fact that poetry is a thing that exists. After all, it’s better than being against it. But Jesus Christ, at the end of the day, what the hell, just what the hell?