At a recent gathering of local poets (thanks for the burgers Liz and Liz’s husband) the subject of gardening came up. About half of the small group in attendance were dirt diggers of some sort. Liz participates in a community plot. Cleveland (yes, her name, so cool) admitted to a veggie patch, Joanne recently started a butterfly garden (send pictures please), and I’m the proud curator of 150 square feed of tomatoes, squash, peppers and other leafy things.
Among the talk of zucchinis, someone mentioned a workshop teacher had forbidden any garden poems (poor Wendell Berry). I had an experience in which a workshop teacher threatened us if he found any references to herbs or spices (this teacher actually brought a 10-inch knife to class and once stabbed a student’s poem with it. The student left crying). I know several litzines automatically throw back any poem about poetry or about writing poetry. A friend once suggested that I write about fishing too much. He’s probably correct, but I think about fishing a lot, so I really can’t help it.
Anyway, that got me thinking about forbidden subjects—not taboo subjects, but subjects that readers, teachers, editors don’t want to see. I’m guessing, and this is just a guess, the reason for the prejudice is overuse or over exposure. Gardening poems are so abundant there’s almost a genre unto themselves, much like elegies or poems about ankles (I’m joking about the ankles). The suggestions or potentials in gardens make them so temping for writers. The digging, planting, hoping, harvesting… It’s a cliché bag before you even open it. You know the poet is investing something heavy in the planting of seeds, is hoping or looking for something, placing all his or her bets on its success. Digging in the soil, rich with potential … you see how it works. Same goes for spices and herbs I assume. The poet is adding flavor, spicing things up so to speak. Yes, too easy. And fishing, that’s so god awful clichéd I should be punished (especially the snooty fly fishing poems), but I do it anyway. I do it all. Why? Not because it’s easy (well, sometimes because it’s easy), but because it also works. If some of those themes verge on cliché it’s because there’s a shared understanding in the experience, I hope. And that shared understanding, if done in a new and surprising way, is what triggers that positive pressure point in a reader. If I read a garden poem that allows me to taste that commonality between myself and the reader, but in a unique way (like the first time I tasted mashed potatoes with wasabi sauce—rock and roll!) then that poem works for me. And there’s the challenge. It is sometimes easier for teachers, readers, editors to immediately dismiss those common themes, but there’s a big risk you’ll miss out on the wasabi.
However, I do have a personal grudge against villanelles, and I’m not willing to get over it. I don’t like popcorn much either.
Now I will go write another gardening or fishing poem.
Oh, and you’ll like this.