Poetry. When I was very young (I’m talking about high school age), I loved that kind of stuff. Silly poems about guys in bathtubs, nursery rhymes, that ridiculous “red is for pink” thing. It was fun. I mean, who doesn’t like playing with rhymes? Surely I can’t be the only one who loves that “Anyone want a peanut?” scene of The princess to be married.
But something happened. One day poetry was fun, the next it was… well, do not. I don’t remember when it happened, but I do know that by the time I hit high school, poetry was weird. I was a little afraid of it. All those poems written in flowery language seemed so irrelevant to my existence. And sometimes, when my classmates seemed to understand what they were talking about, I felt unintelligent. Poetry brought out my fears of not being as smart as my peers.
My growing aversion to poetry wasn’t helped by the disconnect I felt for a long time between the kinds of literature I had to read in school and, you know, real life. (How ironic that I chose to become an English teacher.) Guys like Whitman and Tennyson just didn’t speak a language that made sense in this century. They also weren’t writing about things I could really relate to. But it was more than that.
Poetry was uncomfortable.
It took me a long time to understand why. In college, I thought of it in terms of the inaccessible, meandering language of poetry, its stereotypical romantic subject matter, its irrelevance in today’s world. I have criticized ancient poets for making themselves obsolete for contemporary readers. Deep down, I was kind of an intellectual jerk.
Turns out I was scared of things in more ways than one. When I heard people criticize poetry for being elitist, I repeated that idea, using it as a reason to dismiss any lingering sense of obligation to read things.
In his essay “Elitism and American Poetry”, poet Amit Majmudar advances the view that “the inherently elitist nature of written poetry is only troublesome in a society like ours, with its egalitarian ideals and respect for the people”. In other words, for Majmudar, poetry is “inherently elitist” and it’s really just America’s issues and values that lead to its unpopularity. So. This is exactly the kind of misguided argument that perpetuates the idea that poetry is for navel-gazers and idlers.
I then got my bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees without changing my mind about poetry. In fact, I even managed to do half of my doctoral studies with this literary prejudice intact. Despite the efforts of the many talented and inspiring teachers I had, it was a friend who introduced me to poetry.
This friend is the least academic I know. She is a woman with flowing skirts and bare feet in the sand who spends as much time as possible under a canopy of trees. And she told me she loved poetry for all sorts of reasons that had nothing to do with elitism.
His story with activism. Its simplicity. It is beauty.
I learned from her that the power of poetry lies in its brevity. While I almost always gravitate toward big, chunky novels, the poetry is thin and stripped down. It’s fast…if you want it.
This friend helped me to be receptive to poetry. The years have passed. I have read many beautiful works by amazing poets like Joy Harjo and Maya Angelou and Lawson Fusao Inada. I read more works by Aracelis Girmay and Tommy Pico and Victoria Chang. I went through a phase where I only read poetry. It was like I had been starving for this kind of writing for so long that I was filling myself up with it. It was a sweet phase in my life as a reader. When it ended, I continued to read poetry, but just here and there. Like a respite between novels.
And then I had a child.
They say children change everything. One thing is certain: they change the way you allocate your time. For me, those big old novels just got harder and harder to read. Not for lack of interest or wanting to try, just… well, my toddler doesn’t really appreciate it when his mom curls up on the couch with a good book, tells him to shut up and tries to ignore him. for a few hours at a time.
So I started to take up poetry again. It supports me. A lot of it is really short, isn’t it? And while poetry collections definitely have their own arcs and are carefully put together by their authors, you can usually get away with reading poems one at a time. Sometimes days apart. So I read poetry. Or rather, I read poems. One at a time.
All those things my friend once told me about poetry still hold true for me. This is the world we live in. It’s simple… at least it can be (if only on the surface). I guess I mean the poetry is short enough to seem simple, yet substantial enough to keep me thinking for hours. And it is, fortunately, so magnificent. Maybe not always in those flowery ways I used to be so afraid of, but in the sense that one of its main differences from prose (especially long prose, like novels) is that it tends to focus on ideas or emotions rather than characters.
If you feel inspired to research poetry on your own, check out these resources:
And just in case you’re feeling a bit intimidated, you could browse How to Read Punctuation in Poetry and How to Read Line Breaks in Poetry.