Being Irritated

by Jeff Oaks

I haven’t been writing poems for a while. Or reading them much. Poetry has been irritating me, to tell you the truth. At first I thought I was just irritated after reading a few books that were mediocre to my thinking and to my ear, a thing it’s easy to brush off as my being a bad reader, a moody listener. But then that feeling didn’t go away, even when I set myself before poems I should have liked, by poets I have loved in the past or by poets people I respected trumpeted. Oh, the preciousness of line breaks made my eyes roll. The artificiality of metaphors or adjectives or dependent phrases piling up until the lines and sentences were nearly choking to death. I tapped my fingers a lot waiting for the special effects to end. The stack of unreadable books grew on my bedside table until I finally bought a new bookcase to house them elsewhere. 

I was busy, I told myself. I’d gotten married, I’d taken on much more administrative work than before, I was working on prose now and so naturally my mind and needs had changed. I was constantly long-ranging planning everywhere. I had no more of the vast swathes of quiet I used to have to just settle and grow bored in. I had just come through a period of mourning that even I had no real idea what the length was. I was probably depressed. I was eating too many carbohydrates or too much meat, growing acidic, crippling my gut bacteria, my biome, whatever. I was taking in too much of the political anxiety. It was winter.

You know what didn’t irritate me? Sentences. Sentences that were sensible and elegant and true. Sentences that told me something I didn’t know, that aimed to transmit knowledge, that knew I was there, with all my exhaustion and frustration, trying not to scream because I felt so lost. Sentences that weren’t broken into lines for emphasis or breath units or sound effects or whatever ridiculous reason a poet might articulate as revitalizing or revolutionary but which all seemed to scream “Look at me!!!” I had it bad; I’d become a grumpy old bastard. 

Usually I let myself be for a few days when I’m feeling like that. Irritation is usually a sign something in me is undergoing change, is thinking about, wrestling with, trying to inhibit some idea or energy or (dare I say?) some happiness. I play video games, eat ice cream, lecture too long to my students about some trivial issue, until their eyes look away, until finally I get bored with my selfishness, my self-indulgences. This time, when the boredom hit, I began reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl before bed. The language is clear and came in short sections. Slowly, without much verbal flourish at all, I was deeply moved by the stories in it, which began to build on one another–an acknowledgement of individual lives usually erased by capitalism, empire, industry, whatever monster you choose to think is the prime cause of evil. More than a few times I wept for strangers’ losses, of abandoned pets, of family doors taken off their hinges and evacuated, of those who could not bear to leave. To cry felt like an awful and great thing.  I hadn’t realized I’d been holding so much stuff in. 

Then came a week of intense dreams. Then suddenly I wanted to go to the gym again.
Then, this morning, I woke up with a new project in mind. In prose, I should say. Or a sort of prose I’m finding myself interested in. I’m still not ready for line breaks.