Frustrated by Poetry? 3 Ways to Make Poetry Worthwhile

Last week, I posted a question on my Facebook page that asked what frustrated people most about poetry. The most positive response was “Nothing, poetry is awesome!”, and truth be told, it was my former creative writing students who responded in that fashion. The rest of the responses were more varied. People are frustrated by poetry because

They have to write a paper about it;

Poets are having a party and readers are not invited;

They don’t know how to respond to it; and

They simply don’t read poetry (Which is little untrue if you read my blog. And how can something be just a little untrue? Never mind.)

There’s something to be said for being required to do something and the resulting fun being sucked out of the moment. I hear this from students all year long–but it’s a catch 22. If you wouldn’t read something in the first place and end up liking it, do you unlike just because you have to write about it? This isn’t Facebook, people. I’ve found that I too like books less when I have to write about them–books I wouldn’t normally read. For example, in grad school I took a class called World Without Borders. It was an entire semester focusing on globalism and our ever-shrinking world. Good class. We read two books, The Lexus and the Olive Branch and Jihad vs. McWorld. I would never choose to read either of those books, but a quick scan helped me better understand some of our global issues. Writing about those books forced me to be able to communicate about them, thus I had to have my thoughts in enough of an order to actually be cohesive and memorable. I didn’t like those writing assignments, but they were good for because they stretched me and forced me to materialize some thoughts, opinions, and reactions into something tangible. All of this leads me to the first way to make poetry valuable:

Step 1: Read it. Read poetry.

A poem a day. There are some great resources to make this easy. You could subscribe to Everyday Poems (for $0.99 a year) and have a poem delivered to your email Monday through Friday for an entire year. (Right now, TS Poetry is focusing on Sestinas, so there have been great examples of that form among other solid, accessible poems.) Billy Collins edited a book called Poetry 180 for teachers to read a poem a day to their classrooms. Some of those poems are more for the high school level as I awkwardly discovered, but the collection is still good. I would be willing to bet you a poetry book that if you read a poem a day for a year, that you would accumulate a number of meaningful, memorable, accessible poems to tack on your wall. (All bets are off if you choose LANGUAGE poetry, flarf, or “uncreative” junk that Kenneth Goldsmith tries to sell.) Poets.org also has a poem-a-day email.

But what if you don’t understand the poem? What if it takes, like, 10 minutes of my day to read? What if? What if? What if? Did you know that only 8% of the things we worry about actually happen? Worry less. Read more. It’s good for the soul.

2. Write down something from the poem

That’s right, I’m having you write. Not a lot, though, so stop griping. I’ve gone an entire summer without hearing students gripe and I refuse to start now. Once you’ve read the poem a couple times and written down some lines, images, sounds, metaphors that strike you (literally or metaphorically…I’m telling you, poetry can be a crazy thing), go back and evaluate why you wrote down what you did. Do they relate to your phase of life? Do they just sound really cool? Does the metaphor force you to look at something in your life from a different angle?  Yup, that’s right. You’re responding to a piece of poetry. If  it angers you, embarrasses you, sickens you, convicts you, encourages you–write it down.

3. Be Confused.

What? But I like having nice little answers and solutions to everything. Why would I willfully submit to confusion and uncertainty?

Because it’s good for you. I know it isn’t what we learn in school–American education is nothing more than feel-good fluff that encourages information regurgitation. With math and science driving curriculum, and data driving standardized tests and school grades, it’s no surprise that our students just want the answer. I had one class of juniors several years ago who refused to answer the questions I presented to the class. One brave soul even told me that they weren’t going to answer, they were just going to wait until I gave them the answer. Really? They weren’t to pleased when I gave them a written test the next day, nor were they pleased with the corresponding grade. The next unit went much better. But I digress.

Poetry forces us to be okay with not having all the answers, forces us to evaluate our heart, our life, our community, and our world. Additionally, if we are confused about something, and let our mind work on it in the background, our realizations and understandings begin to grow and mature. That confusion forces us to evaluate our beliefs, wrestle with truth, and consider our stance on a variety of topics. I’m a firm believer on literature not becoming true literature, or art, until is has readers. It cannot have full meaning until going through the prism of readers.

For those who do read poetry, how do you make in meaningful and worthwhile? Especially the really tough, confusing stuff?

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4 thoughts on “Frustrated by Poetry? 3 Ways to Make Poetry Worthwhile

  1. Love number three. I think once you discover a handful of poems or a writer who really captures who you are/what you believe, you begin to have the confidence to branch out and explore more poetry (and maybe even write some!). At the very least, you can always draw parallels from poems that confuse/frustrate you to the poems you really enjoy. Mary Oliver is one of the poets who inspire me! 🙂

  2. That’s funny how different people gravitate towards different poets. I don’t really care for Oliver much. TS Eliot and William Carlos Williams are two poets I keep going back to. Another good one to be confused over is Wallace Stevens.

  3. I hated the stuff, until my late 20’s – didn’t get it, couldn’t stand it. I was primed for it, though. My mother slipped it between the covers of ‘Red Riding Hood’, ‘Boxcar Kids’, ‘Babar’ & blah, for bedtime reading.. Steady diet of Whitman, Elliot, Stein, Bishop, you name it, from the age of one to four. But I lost the taste and didn’t regain it for 25 years. How-to manuals and an occasional story became my sole reading diet until a particular evening that I remember quite well. It happened suddenly. Its a long story – but I was standing in a phone booth at the bottom of an isolated canyon road talking to my mother on the phone. It was pitch dark. The water from a nearby river, swollen with flood rains, was swirling around my ankles and rising at a good clip.

    At some point in the conversation (she didn’t know about the flood) the subject came up for some reason, I can’t recall just why. I finally confessed to her, after all these years, that I hated poetry and didn’t read it. There was a moment’s silence on the other end of the line, then she said, “Wait a minute.” I waited, the water got a little higher. At last I heard her pick up the phone and then, in that wet and increasingly dangerous darkness I heard over the phone, “Turning and Turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer/Things fall apart….” The water was up to my knees now, but I didn’t notice. My mouth hung open and I was stunned, trying to process what I’d just heard. I couldn’t think of anything to say. Finally I managed to stutter out, “Read that again, Mom, would you?”

    After that, my life took a very different course than what I had had in mind. poetry became my passion and my profession. It has remained so, ever since.

  4. Thanks for you story, Red Slider. I didn’t kick into “poet” gear until getting rejected to various MFA programs about 6 years ago. I had had some successful writing gigs and thought I was ready for that next step, but hadn’t even begun to truly hone my craft. It’s been a busy 6 years studying, reading, working with and being mentored by poets of various walks of life. Your story is the second I’ve heard in the past two weeks about poetry being a life-saver. I enjoy hearing these stories. Thanks for sharing!

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