Poetry: Reflection and Recovery.

Cover of "Poetry 180: A Turning Back to P...

Cover of Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry

I’ve been wondering exactly how to proceed here, because I know what I have to say will piss some people off. Ah well.  The recent discussion on the blog is one I have wanted to have for some time and since I just happened to stumble upon ‘s post about why her husband didn’t like, or didn’t get poetry, and her own secret confessions, it seemed like the right time to just launch right in. Obviously these concerns about the plight of poetry are on other people’s minds too. So the time seems ripe to talk about it. 

Before I say more, I should preface this post by assuring you that I truly do believe a poetry renascence is going on in the United States. Maybe it’s already been happening in Ireland and the UK for some time. I don’t know. But we need to be aware of the fact that this is only an early stage for this poetic revival, and that the resurgence of poetry blogs, contests and little e-zines in the past decade or so really don’t tell us much, because most of this is being not only written by, but read by poets. Face it, most poetry lovers in my country’s recent history have also been poets! As Billy Collins said in his book Poetry 180, “much of [this] energy has been expended tracing the same circle it has always moved in, appealing to the same insider audience.”

In essence the greatest issue in bringing poetry back as a more widely experienced art form has been to continue to widen the readership of poetry beyond those people who are inclined to be poets.

Billy Collins goes on to say, “Poetry need not be read by everyone–lots of intense activities have small audiences–but surely this distressing ratio can be changed so that poetry is enjoyed by people who have no professional interest in becoming poets.” It was good to read that one of his chief goals in creating his Poetry 180 project, back when he was poet laureate, was to bring a love of poetry back to high school, because I agree that is “where poetry goes to die.”

As for the poems for today, and the last couple of days for that matter–I have a love-hate relationship with poems about poetry, because while they are fun and probably helpful to us as writers, their ubiquitous-ness is also evidence that we have been reading to each other for so long that we don’t seem to have much to offer the person on the street. Look at it this way, do musicians play music mostly for other musicians? Sure songs about songs and movies about movies can be great fun for those in the know, but it worries me that there is such a vast number of poems about poems, that I wonder if we have not become our own victims and created yet another way to lose our audience. Who wants to listen to a clique that only talks in their own language and to each other? Meta-art, as they call it might be interesting to the artist, but is no way at all to bring new people into the fold.

It becomes masturbatory, not that masturbation is a bad thing. It’s probably quite healthy and good to be that self aware. It only tends to be a problem if you the masturbator is constantly using it as an excuse to not bother trying to relate to and with other people. After all, who can love me better than myself? The metaphor goes too far maybe? Ah well. I tried.

I think we are making progress, but let’s not get so hooked on ourselves as the boys did back in Elliot’s day when they decided difficulty and evidence of academic prowess were paramount in judging a poem’s worth. So much of this philosophical posing these days that people call poetry seems to me just a way for arrogant writers to prove how smart they are. No wonder people feel left out, or looked down upon.

Who needs that crap?

So while I cringe, even at my own poems about poetry (yes, we all write them on occasion, don’t we?), they can be helpful learning tools for us. Someone mentioned the Harshness of Charles Bukowski’s “Poetry Readings.” It is harsh, and it irks me a bit, but I also recognize the truth in it. Charles was good at kicking us in the ass when our heads were stuck too far up there. Here is the text printed on the Writer’s Almanac. You can download and listen to Garrison Keillor’s  rendition, or go here to Roger Ebert’s journal at the Chicago Sun Times site and hear it in the incomparable voice of Tom O’Bedlam, from the Spokenverse YouTube Channel.

But the last poem about poetry I want to leave with you as we start to steer this subject into more pleasant waters, is again by Billy Collins who addresses one of the problems, that I have mentioned before.

The text can be found here at Billy’s Poetry 180 website, and it is also the introduction to the book by that same name. So onward, let’s keep this trend going toward once again a wider audience for the art we love so much.

Thanks for taking the time to hear me out.

28 thoughts on “Poetry: Reflection and Recovery.

  1. Thank you for taking the time to write this (and to leave a trail of crumbs for me to follow from my blog to yours). This is a topic I am passionate about. Before I turned to writing full time, I worked as a storyteller, mostly in schools here in New Zealand, where my single goal was to get children excited about language and stories. I also held down a day job in a local high school, working in the library and the English classes as a teacher aide. It was a depressing experience. Where was the passion for the subject? The pure joy in language? The sense of adventure to be found in the lines of a poem or the pages of a book? Nowhere. The teachers were bored, the students almost comatose. In isolated corners a student’s eyes would search for these things, then not finding them, cast downward again.

    But worse were the times I talked, with great enthusiasm and conviction, about books and stories and poems, only to be greeted with puzzlement. “I hate reading,” a student would say. “I’ve never read a book in my life.” It would bring tears to my eyes. It seems like child abuse to bring up a child in a household empty of books.

    So you are absolutely right. Writers of all persuasions need to stop talking so much to each other, and find ways to spread the word. Literally.

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    • I couldn’t agree more with you! I am getting my Teaching License after years away from teaching, and going into English Literature – simply because I love it and I want to bring this passion for poetry and words to our young people. Many think I am crazy for wanting to teach High School or Middle School – but I think if you are going to make a change, you have to go where change is needed most. :)

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    • I applaud you, Blü! Tomorrow evening I am meeting with someone to plan on how to bring more poetry to the local area, particularly for me, to young people.

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    • It’s heartbreaking, isn’t it? Your story is one of the reasons I originally wanted to teach. Now I’m finding some less traditional ways to do it, it seems. But why should schools be places where learning is a drudgery? I once had one of my sons’ teachers assign homework as punishment for something and I asked her, “How can I teach him the fun of reading and writing, the joy of it, when you are using it as punishment?” No wonder kids hate it. And Alex makes a great point further down in these comments, that like many things, it starts at home. Yet, if it doesn’t, what can we do, how do we spread the word? Time for the creators to get more creative off the page it would seem.

      Thank you so much for your very thoughtful response!

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  2. I fell upon your blog from a comment in another blog I read, and so glad I did. It comes on the heels of hearing an interview yesterday with Sarah Kay on On Being (http://being.publicradio.org/). A great interview and moving poems. Awhile back I wrote about a dinner at our house when we needed to persuade my brother-in-law that poetry was alive and well http://129twigandvine.com/2010/12/16/in-defense-of-poetry/. I’m so happy to find this and see that others are beating the poetry drum.

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  3. I love your blog and it truly inspires me. Even now, I am thinking on how I could effectively write a poem for non-poem lovers in such a way as to find themselves in love with words again. If I could maybe drizzle cheese over words as if they were broccoli and get people to try them… or maybe tantelize them with fun macaroni shaped words smothered in alfredo sauce… or even crate a word bar where every drink was a new delicious word… and only after the words touched their lips and they succumbed to its flavor would they realize… hey – I just devoured a poem.

    ::smiles::

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    • Baby, I think you just wrote at least half your poem, WITH a great ending, right there! Just put it into lines, maybe play with the music, you are already on it. :) I love it.

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  4. I developed my love for literature, prose and poems because of my teachers and the Peace Corps Volunteers during the late 60′s who would reward us with books, book marks and prizes every time we finish reading an assignment or memorize a poem by heart. They knew how to add excitement and thrill by donning costumes which thrilled our young hearts. These days, teachers lack the passion and commitment, and it shows.

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    • A friend told me about how one of her daughter’s teachers showed her the books for the coming quarter, and how there would be a unit on poetry. The teacher said, “I know, I know, but we’ll get through it.” If that was the teacher’s attitude from the beginning how does she expect to inspire a love for literature with her kids!? Thank you for pitching in, Cynthia!

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  5. I briefly worked as a substitute teacher, and this Collins poem was being taught in one of my eigth grade English classes. Even poems about the dangers of poetry analysis are being tortured in schools. For most of the class period, the teacher was simply trying to keep the students on task (I was merely an assistant in the room). They read through several poems, including this one, and the teacher talked about them briefly, but it wasn’t very exciting, and the students were mostly silent.

    When I was in high school, I had a friend who refused to write an analysis of “anyone lived in a pretty how town” because she loved Cummings too much to “tear him apart.” I wonder what the answer is. It’s essential to understand how poetry works so that we can fully appreciate it, but it’s also painful for many people to take things they love and strip them to the bones so that they are no more than little elements of meaning piled up. I wonder, how do we get children to love poetry?

    Maybe it starts with reading them to sleep at a very young age.

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    • I think that really is the best place to start, at a young age. My mother read to me, and I read to my boys. I suppose it can be thrown off track later, but it’s harder to kill once the love for reading is fostered. But I think Billy’s point is explained best by the title. I get the idea that it’s supposed to be an introduction to poetry, not to the stage yet of an upper level in depth analysis.

      This happened to me in the form of music. We had a music teacher that basically tore musical scores apart like we were dissecting baby pigs in biology. It was awful, and I pretty much decided by seventh grade that I didn’t care to learn anything more about music theory.

      This specific thing, how to teach, is important to me because soon I will be engaged in this with local youth. How to teach them the difference between just puking up your guts and bleeding your heart on to the page, and real quality writing, without boring them or stifling them? I think there are things that can be done to make it a discovery. I think teachers should give kids a chance beyond multiple choice or true and false, and be ready for their students to teach them something. On YouTube on occasion I’ve seen school projects for literature put onto film. There should be more of that mult-media creation going on, as well.

      Honestly, my 11th grade teacher somehow made Macbeth come alive for me, while killing Emily Dickinson. Part of it is perhaps just attitude?

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  6. I think that many many people believe poetry to be elitist, highly intellectual and a code to be cracked (and most of us don’t fancy ourselves code breakers, myself included). In reading your comment about Macbeth and Emily Dickinson I can say that I had a similar experience myself. Dickinson was presented to me in high school as beyond my understanding. As was Sylvia Plath and a host of others. Now, I admit my English teachers were particularly snooty but I know that for many people the initial interaction they have with poetry as adults (beyond being children and hearing or reading children’s verse) is often like this. I know that my own wife -who if very supportive of my writing poetry- won’t read it. She has told me she won’t understand it (future tense). There is not a lot I can do about that apart from trying to force her to listen to it (which I won’t do, on principle).

    I think poetry can get to people if they see it in other places. There are poetry slams which overlap well with hip-hop and jazz. I think the link with performance art is wonderful whether it’s dramatics or music or even dance. I also think that when people think about a particularly lovely or evocative set of song lyrics they know then that too is a way to be brought in.

    One anecdote. I had a marvelous literature professor in college who commented once that T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were a bit too cruel in how they wrote because so much of their poetry (especially Eliot’s) made readers feel uneducated, small and even foolish. I think he’s right, even though I consider myself a fan of early Eliot.

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    • I like that idea of poetry seen in different places. That’s why I loved that picture of the Dutch building with poetry written on the side. I’ve seen that in subways and state parks as well. And yes, I don’t want to lose difficulty altogether, or better yet, the layered effect, how you can read something new each time you read the same work. I don’t want just words thrown up on a page, or blood instead of ink… but yes, we have alienated people.

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  7. I definitely agree with a literature as reward system. When I was little, my parents rewarded me with books, like Calvin & Hobbes anthologies, and my mother read choose your own adventure novels to me at night. They got me Atari and Colecovision games, and later Nintendo games, too, but books and games were both rewards, and I love both to this day. I didn’t actually discover poetry until seventh grade, when I happened upon The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, and, thinking “that doesn’t seem too hard,” I started writing my own terrible poems.

    I’m not sure how to translate this into classroom education, but it’s something I need to think about, since I’m also working on becoming an English teacher. I’m hoping the right amount of enthusiasm will go a long way in spreading a general joy of literature, but beyond that, it’s difficult to say just what it was about some of my past teachers, like Mr. Malcolm and Mr. Davis, that made me want to continue reading and writing. By the time I arrived in their classes, I was already in love with literature, so I guess the best thing to do is simply not to kill the joy that students carry into the classroom.

    But converting people who do not already read poetry is even more difficult. We need to explain to people while they are still young that different poems are written for different reasons. Some are for fun, some are for conveying basic emotions, some are written to challenge the intellect. Perhaps we should focus on teaching accessible, fun, emotional poems that most people can relate to, so that they can see that poetry is not only for elitists, but for everyone. Maybe we shouldn’t teach them “The Waste Land” but “The Naming of Cats.”

    I like your multimedia idea. I think it is always a good idea to let students adapt existing works in a way that makes sense to them. They can get closer to the material and express it again in a new way that becomes a part of them. Keep working with the idea.

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  8. I have been reading all these posts with great intrest, esp comparing the US and the UK attitudes to poetry. I think the media idea is cool I also think there is a new breed of poet on the way, who may dilberately brake all of our grammical traditions

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  9. Quite enlightening and powerful message~ Some things disturbed me about the post but every truth is expressed by ones own manner & pathos. I’ve always read poetry in 3 languages so, it is an innate need but, there are different ways humans are nurtured, not only thru poetry. A wonderful & interesting post~ Fondly Deb

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    • Thank you, Deb! And I am envious of the three languages. I have a hard enough time mastering my native one. I have learned precious little German, though I studied it in school, and much less Spanish. I am thinking about being tutored in Portuguese just for the sheer fun of it. Thank you for commenting. I guess the disturbing stuff to me is that so few people enjoy the art of poetry in my country. It didn’t used to be that way, and my hope and dream is to be a part of changing that. I don’t expect or hope that everyone will be in love with verse, but simply that we can undo the damage that I believe has been done in various ways, particularly the intellectual snobbery that has crept up around the art.

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    • Friend ~believe me, it’s not just there but the lack of the love of poetry encompasses all places! I believe you’re in Ireland? Nevertheless dear, your efforts and endeavors IF diligent will bear much fruit! I assure you ~I wholeheartedly support you. Do you have a favorite poet? Love your blog! Deborah

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    • Actually, I live in central Pennsylvania, and my home is nearly visible if you peer closely at this new background image. :) But some of my dearest friends, who are now family to me, and much closer than any from my extended family, do live in Northern Ireland, so that place is precious to me. Their rolling hills are not unlike the green of my wooded ridges here at home.

      As for a favorite poet? That is a hard question. If pressed for the absolute favorite, I might have to say William Stafford, for many reasons. But there are many living and dead who follow closely as a collective second, and include Gerald Stern, Charles Simic, Mark Strand, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Yeats, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and believe it or not, Lord Byron! lol

      Thank you so much for being here, Deb.

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    • You’re the kindest! Thank you for your reply, for letting me get to know you better~ Your “sonofwalt” is a manner of defining the Irish use so, forgive me for misjudging your living area. Your sister Deb

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    • Not at all. I was delighted that you thought I was from Ireland. I feel as at home in the Mourne Mountains as I do on Bald Eagle Ridge. If I could fold space and overlap Northern Ireland and Penns Woods I could live in both homes at once.

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