Yes, yes, that’s probably what you’re thinking, and you’re not alone, but I’d like to make a case for poetry since it’s National Poetry Month, and maybe even get you a little excited about reading some.
First, some things you might associate with poetry.
- It’s for people who are in love.
- It’s weird.
- It rhymes.
- Some of those Old Testament books in the middle sound like poetry.
- It’s confusing.
- It’s pretentious.
- There was some movie with Robin Williams about poetry.
- It’s always about death.
- It’s feminine.
- It’s young people just yelling things that they are angry about.
And you know what? In a way, all of those are right…and wrong.
One thing is for sure, poetry is different, but that’s one of its great attractors. Its means of communication is set apart and easy to identify, and for some, that turns them away. Poetry can also be heavy and deal with tough topics, and we’re not always in the mood for that. But I think the overriding reason poetry gets the cold shoulder from so many is the ways in which they have been exposed to it.
At some point in your youth, you were exposed to poetry. As a child, it was probably children’s books which usually seem to rhyme, and then Dr. Suess. Soon in middle school, your English teacher introduced you to it, and then your high school teacher used it as a vehicle to identify things like onomatopoeia, homonyms, and rhyme scheme. The trouble with all this is you likely weren’t exposed to any contemporary poetry that uses modern language and addresses modern things, and so the language was odd, old, and required deciphering. The other damaging aspect, and possibly the greatest, is your teachers analyzed it to death, sucking the life out of it, and you never learned that poetry was something energizing, passionate, organic, and breathing. You never learned that, as Krista Tippett says, “The language of the heart is poetry.”
The other way you have likely been exposed to poetry is during times of importance. Have you noticed when you hear poetry it’s often at a funeral, a wedding, a presidential inauguration, a graduation, or something of similar importance? I believe this is because we see poetry as sacred language. Poetry carries a significance beyond standard prose and tries to give voice to that which is unknowable, as John O’Donohu says,
Poetry tries to draw alongside the mystery as it’s emerging and somehow bring us into presence and into birth.
So here’s the deal. I’d like to reframe poetry. I’d like for people who aren’t into poetry to not be so afraid and engage with it, and here are my recommendations how.
First, read contemporary poetry. I love Tennyson, Wordsworth, Frost, and Poe as much as the next guy, but those are old dudes talking in old language. It’s really wonderfully rich, beautiful language, but for beginners, it’s off-putting. I’d like to recommend two poets to keep things simple. If observations about the world and nature appeal to you, try Mary Oliver. If you like quirky, humorous observations about just living life, try Billy Collins. Both are very accessible, entertaining, thought-provoking, and any of their books will do.
Second, find the right station. After you get past Oliver and Collins, you may begin to branch out. Poetry is like music; there are lots of different kinds. As you begin to search for poetry and you read something you don’t like, turn the channel and find another poet. Don’t give up because you listened to one country song and decided you don’t like music because you think that’s what all music sounds like. Everyone likes different music. It’s the same with poetry.
Third, don’t read it all at once. Poetry is not like prose. You don’t curl up on the couch for two hours and just read poetry like you do a novel, or at least I don’t because there’s a lot packed into them. I view poems like meditations and approach them as such. I usually don’t read more than four or five at a time because they are so rich and complex in thought. To quickly rush to the next one and rip through a whole book in one setting is not how to read poetry.
So that’s it. Toss aside your old preconceived notions and re-engage with poetry. I’m very sorry how poetry was taught to you in high school (unless you had a really passionate teacher who loved poetry. They do exist.) but don’t let some sorry old poems you read a long time ago, or are maybe reading right now, keep you from a really beautiful, complex, rewarding art form.
“Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision — a faith to use an old-fashioned term. Yes, indeed. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed.” – Mary Oliver
Photo Credit: Outdoor Reading