Poetry gets a bad rap. Our society doesn’t value it, poor teaching habits encourage our children to ignore it or hate it, and mainstream publications take great pains to avoid putting it between their covers. Yet when poetry is properly experienced, it can be one of the most profound, meaningful, and emotionally moving interactions we have with our written (and increasingly spoken) language.
I’d like to talk about poetry’s purpose and then do away with some of the myths and prejudice poetry struggles with in our society.
Poetry’s main concern is experience. After reading an effectively written poem, you should be able to say that it made you think something or feel something and, when you’re lucky, both. Poetry says things more intensely than other types of literature. In a perfect world, poetry doesn’t merely tell us about an experience, but through the use of images, comparisons, and the music of language, it allows us to experience it first hand through our imagination.
If no experience is transmitted, either the poem is not a good poem or else the reader hasn’t met his or her responsibility. I’ve read some poems that I didn’t “get,” but years later said, “oh, that’s what it means” either because I had become a better reader or I had increased my life experience to match the poet’s message. It is the poet’s job to be accessible. Some poets feel that the harder and more obscure the poem is, the more successful they’ve been. I hate those poets. Poems should be clear and understandable. Poets who use strange vocabulary, confusing structure, or obscure or bizarre allusions are not gifted, just annoying. But just because a poem isn’t hard to understand in no way means it can’t have a sense of art, style, or grace.
Myth #1: Poetry doesn’t have to rhyme. It just doesn’t. ‘Nuff said.
Myth #2: Poetry is just for girls. While the boys in my neighborhood were working under the hoods of their cars and smoking cigarettes up on the hill at the end of our street, I was reading in my room, or sitting at my desk trying to work that metaphor into a poem about some girl I was obsessed with, or sending my first submission packet to Modern Bride magazine. In short, I got beat up a lot. American boys are taught that a love of words and language is inherently unmanly and, as a result, the males come into my classroom predisposed to dislike poetry because, sadly, they have been conditioned to think that poetry is girlie.
So let me dispel that myth right now: Poetry isn’t just for sissies. Whew. that felt good.
I’ve been waiting nearly four decades to say that.
Myth #3: Poetry has to be about trees and flowers, imaginary things, or in some other way focus only on “pretty” stuff. Poetry doesn’t always have to beautiful. It doesn’t have to be about nature, animals, faeries, unicorns, butterflies, or rainbows. It can be about those things, but it doesn’t have to be. Poetry can be about anything.
I’ve read poems about cars, tattoos, baseball, big rigs, small appliances, and kitchen utensils (I once read a poem that was entirely about a fork–not a metaphorical one, but the kind you use on mashed potatoes. It was great.). The key is to communicate the experience through the conventions of language. Similarly, poetry doesn’t always have to teach. Sometimes it can just capture a snapshot of life. Watching the look in my students’ eyes when they realize that poetry can be about anything always makes me smile. That revelation is one of the joys of my career.
Good poetry is short, meaningful, and intense. You would think, then, that poetry would be the perfect mode of writing in our Twitter, texting, status update, 144 character world. But it’s not. The stigmas our society insists on attaching to poetry keep it from being a breakout genre. But that’s okay. Knowing that I’m doing something that goes against mainstream society and is, on some level, socially subversive makes me feel like a rebel.
And that’s kinda hot.