Let me introduce myself. I’m a poet. I love good poetry. (It’s not all good, far from it.) When someone asks me to compose a poem for an occasion, I’m usually up for it, though I won’t write love poems for you to text to your secret crush. Do people do that anymore, woo their beloved with heartfelt poetry?
Here’s the thing. I know some people – you, perhaps? – don’t care for poetry. Some people would not cross the road to pick up a poem fallen from the pocket of the U.S. Poet Laureate. Many have no idea the United States has such a thing, nor what this person does, or which lucky poet currently holds that post.
I love poetry so much, I went back to school, student loan and all, at the age of 53 to earn my Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry writing. (MFAs are reserved for creative work, like painting or dance or theater.) For two years, I read and listened to and wrote and critiqued and studied poetry. Call me crazy, but it was one of the best times of my life. Hanging out with poets at the twice-yearly gatherings, I laughed harder than I had in years. Listening to poems (and stories) about man, woman, life, death, and infinity, I sighed, I wept, I felt.
That, to me, is the value of poetry. It is a form of writing that helps us understand our lives, whether we are reading a poem or composing one ourselves. Joan Didion was talking about prose when she said “I write to find out what I think,” but poets do this, too. Sometimes what they find out will make you catch your breath.
If the word “poetry” makes you wince and the idea of a “poet” leaves you confused, I can assure you there’s nothing wrong with you. If the idea of poetry makes you shudder, you are not alone. The fear of poetry even has a name: Metrophobia. This may sound like fear of metronomes, possibly an affliction brought on my overly strict piano teacher. In this case, though, “metro,” Greek for “measure,” reflects the rhythms and line breaks that are often found in a poem.
Why in the world would anyone be fearful of poetry? That’s easy – raise your hand if you remember a teacher who demanded that you memorize and recite a poem out loud, emphasizing the rhyme and rhythm so methodically that all sense was beaten out of the words. Harken back to grueling essay questions in which you were required to explain what a poem means.
I have news for you. A poem can “mean” two dozen things. The poet may have meant one thing, and you may get something else from it, and it is completely okay. If we don’t quite go where the poet was heading, if a poet’s happy verses about her funny mother provoke grief in us because our mom just died, if we see a symbol of domestic violence where the poet really just meant “a table lamp,” that’s fine. That’s terrific! The freedom to interpret a poem however you choose may be a small satisfaction, but I think it’s part of the pursuit of happiness.
Billy Collins, a marvelous poet and two-time U.S. Poet Laureate, described the problem with poetry in a poem called, chillingly, “Introduction to Poetry.” Among other things, he said this:
“I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
[lines deleted so as not to anger the copyright gods]
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.”
I don’t think “they” – Collins’ students, I presume – really want to do that at all. The sad fact is, this approach to poetry was taught to them by sadistic teachers who wouldn’t know a beautiful poem if it sat down in their laps and kissed them on the lips. Too many of us are taught to tear the poem apart to find out what it means because we’ve been brainwashed in one class too many.
Some poets write mostly for each other, or for publication in some narrowly focused journal with a subscriber base of mostly other poets. Some of them learn to write a certain way in graduate school, and can’t ever find their own voices, their own less rigid way of arranging words on a page. These poets are known as “academic,” and not in a good way.
Like any wordsmith, I don’t mind having to work a bit to figure out a poem. But I’m a normal person, too, with little patience with poetry that puts up velvet ropes and hires bouncers. Poets who write poems most people can understand are known as “accessible.” Readers “get” accessible poems, and often they resonate deeply. Following 9/11/01, Collins pointed out the need for poetry this way: “In times of crisis it’s interesting that people don’t turn to the novel or say, ‘We should all go out to a movie,’ or ‘Ballet would help us.’ It’s always poetry. What we want to hear is a human voice speaking directly in our ear.”
Collins’ contribution is a wrenching, gratifying, and ultimately consoling poem about the 9/11/01 tragedies, “The Names.” You can find dull, laborious analyses of this poem online. My suggestion? Read it, walk around in it, be astonished or saddened or heartened by it. It’s just you and poem, the way it ought to be.