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Tag: poetry

On comfort needs, comfort reads and reading Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

For an entire month, I’ve found myself writing posts and deleting them, because they did not sound right enough or because they revealed too much or too little. I have never suffered this kind of writer’s block in all these years, something that led me to avoid the blog not for lack of things to write, but just because of this nagging feeling that I wasn’t being honest to myself. Things are going all kinds of crazy this year, but that has never affected my blog before. The blog has always been a comfort zone; a safe place to turn to; somewhere I can be me. Maybe I’ve just lost my sense of me-ness.

It’s kind of weird that I should feel this way; much more so because I clearly seem unable to explain it. But I have been reading quite a bit. And I do have things to rant about. I went on an amazing trip to England in the beginning of May. And the month ended with me starting a book club here in Bangalore, which has been going adorably well also. So loaded with things to say and lacking the right way; here I am trying something out. I feel sort of like a little lamb lost in my own pen, but nevertheless, write I must. And I will write about comfort reads, in the effort to rekindle my blog love. 
Over the years I have noticed, whenever I have a bad spell for whatever reason, there are certain books I keep going back to. Comfort reads, fiction and non-fiction, and even short stories. The one to start this post-writing-spree with is (various translations of and the original) Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke.
A quick background. Rainer Maria Rilke was an Austrian poet who in a very intense, very mystical style. He was perhaps best known for his Book of Hours (Studenbuch) which was three volumes worth of religious poetry. After the publication of the Book of Hours, Rilke began to earn popularity as a poet, quite early on in his career. 
So there we have him: Rilke, a renowned poet who, once upon a time, received a request from an amateur poet to read and critique his writing. Rilke denied, replying in a letter that a real poet should not care for another’s opinion on his works and asked his amateur fan to be true to himself. Frank Kappus, the young poet who sent a letter to Rilke, received a lot more than literary critique, and ended up exchanging a number of letters with Rilke. Rilke wrote back giving Kappus advice on everything from love, sex, loss, art and beauty. These replies Kappus published under the title Letters to a Young Poet. 
There is nothing so beautiful and revealing as a well-written letter. It’s like a slice of someone’s soul. With every read, I’m stunned by how honest the letters are. The very idea that Rilke took out the time to write these is something to appreciate, but the sincerity of his writing is astonishing. Rilke and Kappus never met, their only correspondence was through these ten letters; and that further lends them this aura of historical fascination. To think that these words might never have been published, were never meant to be published, really makes me thank the stars that they were. What a loss it might have been. See for yourself –

If you trust in Nature, in what is simple in Nature, in the small Things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling, not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge. 
.
You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
.
If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outworks of our presentiment, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, everything in us withdraws, a silence arises, and the new experience, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing.

Remember, it’s German. It is German that has been translated into English here. So it has long winding sentences, endless blocks of writing and a very strange formal Queen-sey tone. But if you let that slide, and turn down the scoff, there is a lot to learn from this man. Some of it will be things you already know; but at least for me, having someone tell me things I thought I knew but never could put into words is one of the great magics of reading. Letters to a Young Poet, the Stephen Mitchell translation, widely considered the best, is available to read online for free (not sure how trusted this site is.) Click away, you can read any or all of the letters on the site; though I have to say, the physical book is worth the buy. 

Postcard, a poem by Margaret Atwood

This year I’m experimenting a little with the blog, and writing about poems is something I want to try. This is not a poem I have spent months dwelling over, reciting and loving. It is a poem I stumbled across the other week, on Poem Hunter, during one of my usual guilty-pleasure John-Donne-reading-sessions. 

Postcard by Margaret Atwood:


I’m thinking about you. What else can I say?
The palm trees on the reverse
are a delusion; so is the pink sand.
What we have are the usual
fractured coke bottles and the smell
of backed-up drains, too sweet,
like a mango on the verge
of rot, which we have also.
The air clear sweat, mosquitoes
& their tracks; birds, blue & elusive.


Time comes in waves here, a sickness, one
day after the other rolling on;
I move up, it’s called
awake, then down into the uneasy
nights but never
forward. The roosters crow
for hours before dawn, and a prodded
child howls & howls
on the pocked road to school.
In the hold with the baggage
there are two prisoners,
their heads shaved by bayonets, & ten crates
of queasy chicks. Each spring
there’s race of cripples, from the store
to the church. This is the sort of junk
I carry with me; and a clipping
about democracy from the local paper.


Outside the window
they’re building the damn hotel,
nail by nail, someone’s
crumbling dream. A universe that includes you
can’t be all bad, but
does it? At this distance
you’re a mirage, a glossy image
fixed in the posture
of the last time I saw you.
Turn you over, there’s the place
for the address. Wish you were
here. Love comes
in waves like the ocean, a sickness which goes on
& on, a hollow cave

in the head, filling & pounding, a kicked ear.

First, allow me a moment to appreciate just how post-card-ly the writing is. Crisp, somewhat direct lines and abrupt pacing, the punctuation: look at all the &s, a fitting effect. The poem has this wistful tone I cannot get over. “What else can I say?” I am no expert, but this is how planned letters all sound, don’t they? Especially those you write to people who know you the best. You sit down to write and don’t know where to start, how to end, and feel a general loss for words that you fill up with routine descriptions till you get into the rhythm of it – and by the time you’ve finally dug deep enough into the meaning-well, the postcard ends. And short letters are like that, they don’t seem to say much at all to anyone except who they’re meant for. The poem leaves so much unsaid, so many blanks to fill. 
You know how a postcard hardly ever looks anything like the real place? The palm trees and the pink sand are a rosy delusion. The first lines of the poem remind me of something from, excuse the ill-timed reference, How I Met Your Mother, about how Lily insists on taking these fake “happy” pictures where their dazzling smiles conveniently hide all evidence of the disasters that led up to the photos. The poet is thinking of a lover she’s distanced from, both physically and emotionally, and what comes to her in that moment is her rosiest happy post-card memory of him. She draws the comparison herself then and tries to wash it away, brings herself to face the fact that it’s only a delusion, eventually gives up and talks about the humdrum of her routine. 

She’s on vacation at a beach, in one of those ‘poor-country’ settings that had I been a little better at geography, I would have been able to name: the heat, the mosquitoes, the pocked roads, that local newspaper, a howling child and rooster and a hotel being built right beside – you get the picture. An extended vacation, it looks like, because she speaks of seasons and as a seasoned resident not a traveller, or maybe it’s a permanent temporary-move till she’s ready to go back, if ever. She calls the hotel someone’s crumbling dream, then remembers her own crumbling wish. Her old relationship seems to her a flimsy facade, like the hotel, that she knows will run out of business as they do in those parts even as it is being built, a failure even if it is physically there. A part of her wonders, “a universe that includes you can’t be all bad”, what could matter as long as she gets to be with him. And she finds the answer right there in the postcard – one that she might be about to send him, there’s the place for the address, but should she? When all she has of him is what she is about to send him – a botched slice of the truth. The postcard will reveal nothing of what she feels, just as her memory shows her only a skewed agreeable “glossy” image of him.  

She concludes with how it still hurts, time comes in waves and she floats on it, not moving ahead, not ready to go back to the past either. And love comes in waves too, she is caught up in them. This is the second time she mentions the rolling waves on her beach, in the middle of nowhere. And so the poem ends hauntingly with images of water, filling and pounding inside her, of drowning. It begs the question, is this her final note?
This was fun for me, a mind-exercise I would love to repeat on the blog. I would also love to know what you make of the poem, your interpretation, if you see something I’m missing? Not to mention, poem recommendations would be very welcome. Happy reading!

Image courtesy of pandpstock001 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wenlock Edge by Alice Munro

Wenlock Edge by Alice Munro is a story from the collection Too Much Happiness. This is one of those stories by Munro that you can read in the New Yorker (although the book version is slightly modified and more impactful, so do try to get your hands on the book.) I’ve been tackling the book fairly slowly, which is a nice idea considering the layered complexity of Munro’s stories. The only story from the book I’ve blogged about before is Fiction, which I read over three months ago.
Wenlock Edge followed a college student, living as a tenant in the attic of an old house, and her new roommate, Nina, a young girl with a terrible past. A series of unfortunate affairs, Nina told the narrator, had led to her making an arrangement with a certain Mr. Purvis. The old gentleman had arranged for Nina to attend college like any other girl on the weekdays and the spend the weekends with him. Nina seemed sincerely grateful to the man, until the narrator noticed that she rarely wrote in her college notebooks and had a black car tailing her at all times. One weekend when Nina was supposed to visit Mr. Purvis, she fell ill and instead, convinced the narrator to accompany him for dinner. That night, at Mr. Purvis’s modern house, the narrator discovered the ugly truth of Nina’s arrangement.
Somewhere in the story, somewhere in his house, Mr. Purvis made the narrator read to him the poem On Wenlock Edge by A. E. Houseman.
On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble;
      His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
      And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
      When Uricon the city stood:
‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
      But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
      At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
      The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
      Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
      Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
      It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
      Are ashes under Uricon.
At first read, the poem didn’t make any sense to me, then this analysis, which explained all the vocabulary, helped. A reread made it clearer. The poet says all actions and all feelings are the same and they’re all mortal in the end, just as we are. In the context of the story, On Wenlock Edge affected the narrator, it touched the victim in her when Mr. Purvis made her read to him and it haunted her into revenge.
Had he known? Had he known that I would never think of those lines again without feeling the prickle of the upholstery on my bare haunches? The sticky prickly shame. A far greater shame it seemed now than at the time. He had got me, in spite of myself.
I would always be reminded of what I had done. What I had agreed to do. Not been forced, not ordered, not even persuaded. Agreed to do. 
Nina would know. She would be laughing about it. Not cruelly, but just the way she laughed at so many things. She would always remind me.

Wenlock Edge by Alice Munro was atmospheric, melancholy. It was intriguing and engrossing. The subtlety of writing, the gentle choice of words somehow enhanced the obscenity of Mr. Purvis’s actions, the emotional abuse. The story showed us two victims, one blaming herself and desperate to shift the blame onto another, the other turned painfully nonchalant and ruthless by her suffering. It showed us how we’ll never know what we’re capable of, how we can not only surprise but often horrify ourselves, and how we can never really know someone, no matter how well we think we do. The cruelty of the story was not altogether unusual and that’s what made it most effective.
I love Munro’s writing, how it makes me really dig deep, every line, every word is significant. The flitting timelines make for a punchline which you might not understand at once and which, when you do, will leave you speechless. What makes this whole book most attractive to me is the apparent ease with which Munro constructs her stories; she sews together seeming inconsequentialities into a vast canvas and the big picture thrills and stuns you.
Do you have any Alice Munro favourites you would recommend? And what do you make of this story? I’ve spent some time dissecting it and would love your thoughts on the poem!

A Short History of the World – A Book Spine Poem

A Short History of the World 

Red Earth and Pouring Rain
Magic of the Angels
Sacred Games, Burning Bright,
The End of the Gods.


Born Free, Going Solo,
All Creatures Great and Small.
A Time to Kill Men of Honour,
A Fraction of the Whole.

– a poem by my’shelf’

The books are all different sizes, which made it very difficult to balance them on top of one another, and they did topple over a couple of times. Not to mention, it was hard to take one whole picture with all the books and titles in the frame and legible, hence there are two photos now. 
I would love to know what you make of the poem, which is pretty much open to your interpretation. What I was going for was a fairly literal meaning, considering there is very little poetry in me. I don’t remember where I first saw this idea, but this post was inspired by Kid Lit Geek’s fantastic Book Spine Poetry.
And these are the books starring in the poem. I have read and I happen to like the bold ones. Clicking on the couple of highlighted names will lead you to my reviews.
A Short History of the World by H. G. Wells
Red Earth and Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra
Magic of the Angels by Jacqueline Rayner
Born Free by Joy Adamson
Going Solo by Roald Dahl
All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
A Time to Kill by John Grisham
Men of Honour by Adam Nicolson
A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
So what do you think of this? I would, of course, love to see some of your book title poetry!

Two Poems based in Folklore – German Literature Month 2012

The German Literature Month 2012 is hosted by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life. The first week is for novellas, plays and poems. I read two books of poems, one by Goethe and another by Heinrich Heine. This post is about two fascinating poems, which are based, to an extent, on folklore.
The first is a poem called Der Erlkoenig or The Elfking / Alder King / Erlking by Goethe. You can read it here, along with the literal translation and English adaptation. The poem is best of course, in its original language, but here is another loose adaptation of the poem in English by Sir Walter Scott. There are actually many translations of the poem, my personal favourite would be the one by Edgar Bowring, mostly because the archaic language maintains the quaintness of the ballad.

Who
rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
The father it is, with his infant so dear;
He holdeth the boy tightly clasped in his arm,
He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.

“My
son, wherefore seek’st thou thy face thus to hide?”
“Look, father, the Erl-King is close by our side!
Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train?”
“My son, ‘tis the mist rising over the plain.”

“Oh,
come, thou dear infant! Oh, come, thou with me!
Full many a game I will play there with thee;
On my strand, lovely flowers their blossoms unfold,
My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold.”

“My
father, my father, and dost thou not hear
The words that the Erl-King now breathes in mine ear?”
“Be calm, dearest child, ‘tis thy fancy deceives;
‘Tis the sad wind that sighs through the withering leaves.”

“Wilt
go, then, dear infant, wilt go with me there?
My daughters shall tend thee with sisterly care;
My daughters by night their glad festival keep,
They’ll dance thee, and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep.”

“My
father, my father, and dost thou not see,
How the Erl-King his daughters has brought here for me?”
“My darling, my darling, I see it aright,
‘Tis the aged gray willows deceiving thy sight.”

“I
love thee, I’m charmed by they beauty, dear boy!
And if thou’rt unwilling, then force I’ll employ.”
“My father, my father, he seizes me fast,
Full sorely the Erl-King has hurt me at last.”

The
father now gallops, with terror half wild,
He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child:
He reaches his courtyard with toil and with dread,
The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead.

I love the poem, it is dark and dreary, just the way I like. I realized there were many interpretations of this poem, after reading some myself, like the Erl-King being seduction or all things forbidden. I like it more when the supernatural is actually there, even if as a horrific figment of our imagination, rather than a symbol. The most literal meaning is that there actually is an Erl-King, who after failing to take the child with him, kills him in anger.
To me, though, they don’t seem like just another father and child. It’s late and it’s a dark and dreary night; to me it seems like there is a reason that they are travelling in right then; a reason that the father is holding his child so close and tight. The child is already sick and hallucinating. What I thought is that the Erl-King is something that the child believes has come to take him, when he is on the verge of dying, a Grim Reaper, if you may. As the child loses his touch with reality, he feels that something is beckoning him to join it and after the child protests, forcing him. The child doesn’t want to go, as he is scared, but death or the Erl-King takes him away, anyway.

I doubt that the father ever believes in the Erl-King, even as he runs away. It is just the most obvious thing to do: he is on his horse, it is dark and no one is around and as the child’s desperation increases, the father knows something is wrong and gallops off, terrified, to where he was originally headed: to get help. It could also be said that the father prefers to believe in the fantastic tale of an Erl-King taking his child away, so as to put the blame for the child’s death on something other than the fact that the father himself was late in getting help. 

I love the setting: the wisps of cloud in the sky, the sound of wind rustling through the leaves, the shadows of huge, still trees; they all do seem like evil spirits. Creating a fear of the unknown or unseen may be the most used technique in horror, gothic fiction, but it works for me every time. I really liked this ballad.
Would your interpretation of the text be as literal as mine?

_____________________________________________________________________

The second poem is Die Lore-ley or The Lorelei by Heinrich Heine. You can read the original poem here.
I first read it in English, a few years ago, in Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad. When I read the original poem in Gedichte, a book of poems by Heinrich Heine, I remembered why I was so fascinated by the story and the legend back then. Also, the imagery in the original poem is masterful and I could imagine every single detail of the scene from the way it is written. 
Here’s the version Mark Twain mentioned in the book. He had probably translated it himself, but I’m not entirely sure about that:



I cannot divine what it meaneth,
This haunting nameless pain: 
A tale of the bygone ages 
Keeps brooding through my brain:


The faint air cools in the glooming,
And peaceful flows the Rhine, 
The thirsty summits are drinking 
The sunset’s flooding wine;


The loveliest maiden is sitting 
High-throned in yon blue
air,

Her golden jewels are shining, 
She combs her golden hair;


She combs with a comb that is golden, 
And sings a weird refrain 
That steeps in a deadly enchantment 
The list’ner’s ravished brain:


The doomed in his drifting shallop, 
Is tranced with the sad sweet tone, 
He sees not the yawning breakers,
He sees but the maid alone:


The pitiless billows engulf him!–
So perish sailor and bark;
And this, with her baleful singing, 
Is the Lorelei’s gruesome work.

The Loreley is a rock on the coast of the river Rhein, which forms a blind turn on the narrowest part of the river. Many sailors have crashed onto the rock and died. The heavy currents near the rock create a murmuring sound, which has inspired many legends and folklore. The mythical tale of the musical nymph Echo inspired a ballad, where a beautiful girl named Loreley, who has been betrayed by her lover, jumps down to her death, from the rock on the Rhein. The echo of her name haunts the rock and kills any man who approaches it.

Heinrich Heine’s poem on the other hand, looks at Loreley as a siren instead of a nymph. Sirens are devious, seemingly beautiful creatures who lure sailors to their doom with their charming voices. The poem could be interpreted thus as a tale of a frightening monster that wants to kill the sailors. It can also be seen as  a tragic romantic story, which is how I first interpreted it. The singer, Loreley, might as well be blissfully oblivious to the gruesome ending, which her music has brought the men to. 

I like the use of sounds in the poem and the small word-plays, which I couldn’t really describe because the poem I’ve given here isn’t the original. That makes me wonder if it is worth reading translated poems, with everything that may have been lost in the process. A single changed syllable changes the sound, and hence the rhythm, and it could change the meaning of the poem or affect the way a poem is interpreted. Not to mention there are word plays, allusions and puns that can’t quite be translated word for word. What do you think?
Another poem by Goethe that I read and loved was Heidenroeslein. The book of Heinrich Heine’s poems was a precious little collection and I enjoyed all the poems I read. Which are your favourite German poems?

Free Verse or Formal Verse?


In my last post, I asked you to tell me about your favourite poems. Recently I’ve been going through a lot of “calls for submission” as a part of some work! I noticed many publishers mention that they only accept free verse or modern style and that do not accept poetry ‘with rhyming lines’, as if it were a terrible thing.

I have read a lot of poems in the last few months, partly because I had to learn them, partly because through all the studying (hah) I actually developed a genuine interest. From whatever poetry I have read, I think formal verse is just as effective a way to put across a message. Look around you, everything in the nature has structure; that should be enough to prove that structure has beauty too. The metric patterns, for me, give a sense of precision and balance to the poem. I don’t think that formal verse with things such as metre or rhyme limits your creativity, I actually think it challenges you further. The rules were there for a reason. While it is okay to break them when they seem like a cage around that particular poem, breaking the rules is neither the better way nor the only way to expression. I may be wrong, but every time someone says “poetry is freedom” and “poetry is expression, which is not bound by any laws”, I can’t help but think of all the greatest masters of poetry, right from the Bard, who used the rules and patterns and laws to express, and express a lot. A bias towards neither of the two types of poetry, formal or free verse: that’s what they mean by freedom.

In my three posts on poetry on this blog, I have made it a point to bash the poems found all over the internet, those which are generally assisted by glittery, romantic or dark, mushy, pictures of suicidal people. And, I do not like them: random difficult sounding words picked right out of a thesaurus, stringed together, deliberately avoiding any semblance of grammar do not automatically qualify as poetry.

But, as I was writing that right now for the third time, I realized for the second time how incredibly judgmental I was sounding and so I decided to actually tell you about one poetry blog that I regularly read and actually sort of love. Do visit! I’m sure there are a lot of great poetry blogs on the internet and I hope I discover more of them.

Poetry: Do you like it?

Back when I started this blog, I wrote a post called Why
Poetry Sucks
 – it’s one of my most viewed posts, and now that I think
about it, one of the most excessively critical posts on this
blog. I had decided never to delete any of the posts I have written, just
because I change my opinions; so instead of removing the post, I am re-writing
it.
I don’t like poetry, usually, because it doesn’t draw me in
as much as prose does. I think good poetry is very hard to write. I think
a poem should not be vague for the sake of being vague. Inverting lines
and using pompous words doesn’t cut it; which is why, I don’t like most of the
poetry posted all over the internet; then again, I don’t like most of the prose
posted around the internet for the very same reasons, as well.
Once upon a time, I claimed I wouldn’t like short stories,
without actually ever having read a single collection. I had already decided I
didn’t like plays, when I discovered Oscar Wilde. Sometime last year, someone
suggested that I read Poe’s The Raven (I can’t recall who) and I did and I
liked it. I read a book last month, sitting in the library, a book of poems by
Wordsworth; I liked quite a few and didn’t quite like some others. Last week I
was looking for books on Shakespeare and I flitted through the pages of a book
of sonnets and loved almost every one I read. My point is – I change my
opinions quite a lot, hm? Actually, my point is, I seem to form a lot of strong, uninformed opinions. And it may be time for me to inform myself about poetry!
There’s a problem, though. I have a method set for reading
fiction; I know whose recommendations to trust, I know what genres I like, I know
the names of most of the authors out there. My books-to-be-read list is already
four feet long! When it comes to poetry, what I have in my head is a white
screen (of sorts) with a big question mark in the centre. I don’t know whom to
read, where to start and how to look for good poems. So I’m posting this hoping
that someone will tell me about their favourite poems, the poets they like and
the different kinds of poetry out there. What would you suggest?

Why Poetry Sucks

Poetry sucks; well 99% of it, anyway. I hate poetry; even the 1% that doesn’t suck as much as the rest. I can recall only two poems that I’ve actually ever really liked(and they were not in any way based on sadness). Usually it’s too vague, too depressing, and most of it doesn’t have a clear message.

All the poems that you’ll find strewn all over the internet are something else: usually it’s a combination of some glittery anime picture or a sunset picture with a couple standing there, or just any revoltingly romantic picture and a few non-rhyming lines with words that you’ll never use while writing or talking squeezed in there just for the sake of it. Of course, it has to be about either death or love. And the basic principle is – the less you understand it; the better it is. Kind of like modern art all over again, huh? It’s depressing to see so many people waste so much time on being depressing!

I don’t deny that it’s hard to write: all the haikus and acrostics and all. But why write it, right?! Why does anyone need to write a poem with “17 syllables divided into three phrases of 5, 7 and 5 syllables” which is what I think a haiku is?! So what if it’s difficult; writing with your feet is difficult – doesn’t mean it has a point!

My views on poetry are basically summed up by Jess Mariano in Gilmore Girls: “I can’t get into poetry. It’s kind of like, geez, just say it already, we’re dying here.”