Can We Stop Rewarding Mediocrity In Poetry?

Adrian Adnaan Osmani
4 min readMay 20, 2018
I use an image of Salt, because everyone thinks they can write like Nayyirah Waheed. I discuss her below.

I have noticed a trend….I’d like to call it a trend but it’s become somewhat of a standard lately, of people on social media sharing what they think as and hashtag as “poetry” — and yes, I’m going to come off as a complete literary snob, but if you stick with me, I will thoroughly explain.

I’m talking about the whole, write a poem with broken lines randomly, no punctuation, always speaking in first person, always talking about a break up, lower cased, untitled, instagrammable product.

Just because you’re describing your feelings, or breaking up the lines in an edgy way, or being sexual, doesn’t make it poetry. Here’s why.

Respect The Craft

Before I dip into the nitty gritty, let’s get some basic house keeping in order.

Poetry is a word we use to describe craft.

Poetry is Shakespeare.

Poetry is ALSO Lauryn Hill.

Poetry is even Dave Chapelle.

The common thread between all of those things is craft.

It doesn’t need to be high Greek drama; it can be done using street slang but what matters is if the concept moves something within you.

But here’s the thing — the medium you use inspires the effort you need to put into it.

A natural side effect of social media is that it increases noise. I don’t need to make you break into tears or make you ponder about mortality — I just need you to fucking tap the heart icon.

This goes against the spirit of craft. A craftsman (or craftswoman) does it for themselves first and if it is shared, it is a choice. Not to gain attention or praise, but to either teach others (for free) or to invite constructive criticism.

It’s a bit like going to a sports match to ask for feedback on your story. Some kind individuals might help you, but it is ultimately not the right arena.

Show Your Cards — A Question of Priorities

There’s also a deeper reason why not respecting craft in poetry bothers me and actually it really disturbs me.

We all want our cars to be of a good craft. No one wants to drive a broken car.

We all expect our clothes to be of acceptable craft. Our image-based society is rather obsessed with craft which is borderline neurotic-perfectionism when it comes to self-image.

We respect craft in these instances because actually they align with our priorities, some of which might (conveniently) be society’s priorities.

But when it comes to poetry, or even music, we don’t really care? Do it overnight, do it in a week, you’re all good.

I am talking about the rampant abuse of minimalism as artistic licence.

People seem to forget that minimalism began as a conceptual exercise.

Minimalism is a response to post-modernist technique which was exaggerated by things like war and technology.

Minimalism is actually about wanting to return to nature and to actually get away from things like technology.

You can do great minimalist poetry and post it on social media. But not everyone can be Nayyirah Waheed because she is conceptual.

She has craft. I will prove it to you.

An Analysis That Proves That Being Minimal Can Be Poetic If You Try

When Waheed says:

if we must
both
be right.
we will
lose
each other.

I will prove to you that you can still do the whole edgy break up the lines thing and minimal punctuation thing that everyone loves to do right now and yet still slay it because you have a fucking complete concept start to finish:

  1. Poets spend a lot of time deciding what the first word will be. She chose “if” which means she already set the entire thing up as a question.
  2. The only two words that are alone in this poem are the words “both lose” — that’s some internal symmetrical shit added to create symbolic meaning.
  3. Punctuation! Just because it’s all in lower case so it’s incredibly intimate doesn’t mean you throw out all the rules of punctuation. She puts two full stops in this poem and they feel like a fucking bullet to the heart each time she uses them.
  4. Speaking of symmetry, she could’ve added an extra word in the final line so it perfectly matched with the first line of three words, but slimmed it down to two to add stress to emulate that pain of losing something.
  5. I said she started the poem with a question. It ends with a definitive answer, but it isn’t an answer you want to hear. So you get the satisfaction of having your question answered, but it hurts to know it.
  6. If you don’t think she purposefully thought of all of this….she named this poem “exile” — think about that and then come back to me.

So there you have it. Hunger for more. Be conceptual.

I say that with such passion because people seem to think that poetry is ornamental. As if it doesn’t have a purpose other than decoration.

Like its some pretty thing you hang in a frame.

Like it’s a positive quote you read to yourself to get you through Monday.

No bitch, you have it all wrong.

Poetry will be there to describe the best food you’ve ever had.

Poetry will be there to convey the love of your life.

Poetry will be there when your loved ones die.

It will have your back when no one else will be interested in helping you.

In return, respect poetry, respect craft and she will reward you.

Don’t reward mediocrity or celebrate someone confirming what you want to hear.

Hunger for more.

--

--

Adrian Adnaan Osmani

Writer based in London, specialising in Literature, Philosophy and Marketing.