Poetry can try the patience of even the most willing of readers. John Milton’s extended similes mysteriously belabor seemingly arbitrary comparisons; T.S. Eliot’s famously infuriating footnotes obscure more than they reveal; and Lyn Hejinian’s non-sequitur-fueled “sonnets” boggle the mind, refusing sense and logic at every turn. If you’ve ever read poetry for English class and found yourself retreating into skepticism, frustration, resentment, and irritability, read on. Here are four reasons that grumpiness is actually a useful emotion for both poets and readers of poetry.
Grumpiness is a legitimate – and sometimes profound – critical and theoretical stance.
In the realm of literary theory more broadly, the relatively newly emergent field of affect theory pays close attention to the structure of feelings, with theorists like Rita Felski, in Hooked: Art and Attachment (2020), arguing that readers should pay attention to the ways they both succeed and fail at attuning themselves to texts. If a text excites feelings of any kind in you – strong or weak, positive or negative – that’s important information for you to log. Literary theorists interested in affect theory want to widen the range of acceptable, significant emotions that a person can feel in relation to a work of art; it doesn’t always have to be awe or contemplative silence!
Grumpiness, in particular, is having its moment. From Lauren Berlant’s concept of “cruel optimism,” to Frank B. Wilderson III’s articulation of the strain of critical race theory called “Afro-pessimism,” to Sara Ahmed’s appropriation of the figure of the “feminist killjoy,” popular theorists of this moment are all looking for ways to legitimize foul tempers, exasperated reactions, and awkward vibes.
Grumpiness is a way of waiting for understanding to come.
The Romantic poet John Keats famously claimed that great readers and writers need to be able to achieve something called “negative capability,” which occurs “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” A huge part of reading poetry is finding a way to be comfortable not understanding, a way to interact with texts before you have pinned down their exact “meanings.” That’s because most poems make their meanings out of the experience you have while you’re wrestling with them, rather than out of the denotations of their words. If you’re feeling grumpy, you’re probably right next door to negative capability. It’s like waiting for the bus to come; you don’t know if it’s on schedule, but you know you’re in the right place.
Grumpiness can set the stage for poets’ lyric epiphanies.
In Philip Larkin’s poem “Church Going,” the speaker is taking a bike tour of abandoned English churches and feeling pretty grumpy about it; after rudely dropping an Irish sixpence in one collection tin, he “Reflect[s] the place was not worth stopping for” and, as he puts his helmet back on, wonders why he keeps visiting these old places at all. The grumpy question gives way to a series of incredible insights about the way secularization of human society has left grumbling tourists like himself searching almost in vain for “recognizable” shapes in which “all out compulsions meet.” It’s only because he is feeling so grumpy, and therefore questioning everything, that Larkin’s speaker accesses the poem’s climactic realization. Lyric poetry often gets its umph from these kinds of epiphanies, and it’s arguable that grumpy poets are particularly primed to experience them.
Great poets have been grumps.
Larkin is just one example. The celebrated 18th century satirist Alexander Pope, who famously poisoned a houseguest and was unimpressed by almost every writer in history except Dryden, used his grumpiness to add fire to his rhyming couplets. 20th century epigram expert Dorothy Parker, who darkly quipped that “men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses,” sharpened her own wit on the whetstone of her grumpiness. In the contemporary era, “NDN” & queer poet Tommy Pico records his junk food-fueled mood swings in book-length poems that thematize the pettiness of being in your 20s in the 21st century. If poets are allowed to feel grumpy, then their readers are, too!
Next time you find yourself feeling grouchy while reading poetry, don’t beat yourself up for it. Remember that you’re in good company – and that you never know what mood is coming around the corner, especially when you’re interacting with art.