Teaching literature to first-year university students has made me rethink how I appreciate poetry. Poetry is, I believe, the most misunderstood genre. Not everyone who writes poetry wears berets, drinks espresso, talks about drinking espresso, and fakes an English accent while espousing themes of art and death.
Anyone who teaches literature knows that it can be really rewarding but also extremely challenging especially when you hear “poetry sucks” at least a few times a semester. Upon hearing negative poetry talk in the classroom I ask students what it is we use to mark the most important times—typically weddings, funerals, grads, births—in our lives. We use words and music, of course. Speeches, psalms, songs, and poems keep the human spirit moving. Whether we’re sending someone over yonder at a funeral or quoting a line from a sonnet to end a wedding speech, poetry and its various forms are our commemorative tools.
One of the first things I hear at the beginning of the year is, “I just don’t get poetry.” Some poetry is hard in that it demands a little more of the reader than what they want to invest. Doesn’t all literature demand something of its readers? A reader can’t skim a novel and completely understand it; likewise, for a magazine article or the contents of a favorite website. And sometimes it’s ok not to “get” every poetic element or figure of speech.
Another complaint about poetry is that “the language is difficult” and too often we need a dictionary nearby to achieve understanding. Like some novels that seem insurmountable, there are poems that are just flat-out hard. Then there are others that illustrate complex themes so simply and so well they almost make you mad (or maybe that’s just me) like My Papa’s Waltz by Theodore Roethke, Barbie Doll by Marge Piercy, The Broadcaster’s Poem by Alden Nowlan, A Supermarket in California by Allen Ginsberg, Necropsy of Love by Al Purdy, and Her Mark by Michael Crummey.
I’ve also heard the generalization that “poets are pretentious.” Yeah, some poets can be pretentious but so too can bankers, teachers, moms, grocery store clerks, drunks, radio show hosts, bartenders, and well, you get the idea.
I think what some tend to forget is that poetry is, simply put, about our experiences, and sometimes the emotions that come with those experiences can be very complex, but that’s not a poetry thing, that’s a people thing.
Complex poetry can make me laugh, weep, reflect, and it does have a place in my heart and several places on my bookshelf. I can’t discount the very important fact that I’ve made a portion of my living talking about it. Point is, there is a lot of poetry out there that lives somewhere between my angry teenage grunge writing and the Collected Works of William Shakespeare. Residing somewhere in this inbetween is a poem that can: help you express yourself, motivate change, help you deal with loss, describe your regret, help you get through your day, make you laugh, and there’s one or two that just might make you smile. Poetry, like a good hooker, is whatever you want it to be, and if you want it to suck, it will.
Now where is my beret…
PS. Anthologies are great places to start when trying on poetry. They usually have a solid cross-section of work from a variety of talented writers. If anthologies aren’t your thing, celebrate National Poetry Month by snacking on one of these delicious collections.