When I was 15, in the mid-nineties, the thing I cared about most was hip-hop music. I’m tempted to say it was all I cared about, and for certain stretches of time it probably was. And like any obsession, it could get exhausting. But looking back I see a second layer of fatigue—that of trying to convince myself it was ok to form my identity around black culture. It sounds a little funny now, when hip-hop is massively popular around the world, but back then I felt like I might be trespassing. In a way, loving hip-hop wasn’t really very fun.
When I discovered a love of poetry, it was via my hip-hop obsession. Spoken word poetry was on MTV, much of it infused with a rap sensibility. In the book The New Beats, the author S.H. Fernando mentioned the Beat Generation as a precursor to hip-hop culture. Here was a way in and a way out.
It was an intuitive transition. Knowing which tracks DJ Premier produced on Illmatic was replaced by knowing which character represented which real poet in Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans. Instead of trying to shoulder my way into black culture, I submerged myself in a culture of other guys who liked black culture.
As I did with hip-hop music, I looked into the artists who influenced the poets I loved. But this time I didn’t force it. If a poem was inscrutable to me, I didn’t beat myself up about it, I just moved on. If a poet’s voice, or even his face or demeanor or clothing, didn’t do it for me, there were plenty more to pick from. This time, I was going to enjoy myself.
This is all to say that my appreciation of poetry is just as much about the idea of poetry and the biographies of poets as it is about poems. It’s about milieu, legend, and romance. I’m just as happy learning about Frank O’Hara shooting down a drunken Jack Kerouac at a poetry reading as I am reading O’Hara’s actual poems. I never tire of looking at photos of Allen Ginsberg—the young sailor, the wild-eyed poet, the counterculture hero—but a lot of his poetry just wears me out.
But I don’t think that means I love poetry less than someone more devoted. A dilettante’s love might be a happier love, and it doesn’t glow from a weaker heart.