I’ve got poetry on the brain friends. Which is generally a good thing, considering I’m about to finish my Masters in Creative Writing and the focus is poetry.
But lately, I’ve been disappointed. Even my fellow grad students, who write fiction or other genres, are afraid of poetry. Most of them avoid teaching it at all costs and I doubt that any of them have read any poetry for fun in a long time… or, you know, ever.
And I’m guessing most people I know, and beyond, don’t decide to add poetry to their normal reading list. Which is sad, because honestly, carrying around a book of poetry and reading a poem every chance you get can be easier to do than committing yourself to read a whole novel.
The real point here though is to ask why. Why do people hesitate when they see the words don’t fill the whole page? (Though, to be fair, sometimes poetry even looks like prose these days.) As my friend Jonathan recently said, it’s just sentences.
So, I figured it would be worth my time to discuss, and hopefully debunk, some common poetry myths. Now, there are plenty, so I’m just going to look at one today.
Common Myths About Poetry (that means they aren’t true.)
- Poetry is Innately Harder to Read:Now this one is hard because I have heard this most of my life. And from who? My teachers. This is where I think the problem starts and ends for most people. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. When teachers throughout elementary, middle, and high school levels explain that poetry is harder to understand and when you read, you must find the one meaning of the poem. In short, they say that poetry is hard, there is only one way to read it, and you just won’t understand. After awhile, we believe this is the truth.
This, is bull-shit.
Poetry is an art form that uses words as its tools. So yes, each word matters. But if you can read a book, you can read a poem. Think of it this way, think of how much time it take to read a novel and therefore, how much attention you give each word, not just shrink the time and magnify the attention a bit. Poetry asks for you to pay a bit more attention but it helps guide this attention by using line breaks and stanza breaks.
Yes, those things are there to help you read. Those are there for similar reasons to chapters ending, to say, this is one unit, focus on this. Now, if you consider that all the parts of poetry that are supposed to be confusing are actually there to help you– doesn’t that make things clearer? Isn’t poetry less scary?
Like any other art form, from painting to sculpture, novels and non-fiction, and so on, the more poetry you read, the easier a time you will have reading it. So, let’s read one poem today.
The following poem is by Mark Jarman, who I got to meet in Prague last summer, and who teaches at (and I think runs) the Creative Writing program at Vanderbilt. What I love about this poem is that there is plenty for anyone to relate to. Also, you can go here and listen to it while you read it.
by: Mark Jarman
Is nothing real but when I was fifteen,
Going on sixteen, like a corny song?
I see myself so clearly then, and painfully–
Knees bleeding through my usher’s uniform
Behind the candy counter in the theater
After a morning’s surfing; paddling frantically
To top the brisk outsiders coming to wreck me,
Trundle me clumsily along the beach floor’s
Gravel and sand; my knees aching with salt.
Is that all I have to write about?
You write about the life that’s vividest.
And if that is your own, that is your subject.
And if the years before and after sixteen
Are colorless as salt and taste like sand–
Return to those remembered chilly mornings,
The light spreading like a great skin on the water,
And the blue water scalloped with wind-ridges,
And–what was it exactly?–that slow waiting
When, to invigorate yourself, you peed
Inside your bathing suit and felt the warmth
Crawl all around your hips and thighs,
And the first set rolled in and the water level
Rose in expectancy, and the sun struck
The water surface like a brassy palm,
Flat and gonglike, and the wave face formed.
Yes. But that was a summer so removed
In time, so specially peculiar to my life,
Why would I want to write about it again?
There was a day or two when, paddling out,
An older boy who had just graduated
And grown a great blonde moustache, like a walrus,
Skimmed past me like a smooth machine on the water,
And said my name. I was so much younger,
To be identified by one like him–
The easy deference of a kind of god
Who also went to church where I did–made me
Reconsider my worth. I had been noticed.
He soon was a small figure crossing waves,
The shawling crest surrounding him with spray,
Whiter than gull feathers. He had said my name
Without scorn, just with a bit of surprise
To notice me among those trying the big waves
Of the morning break. His name is carved now
On the black wall in Washington, the frozen wave
That grievers cross to find a name or names.
I knew him as I say I knew him, then,
Which wasn’t very well. My father preached
His funeral. He came home in a bag
That may have mixed in pieces of his squad.
Yes, I can write about a lot of things
Besides the summer that I turned sixteen.
But that’s my ground swell. I must start
Where things began to happen and I knew it.
Hopefully, that will give my non-poetry-reading audience something to think about for now. But look forward to more posts that de-bunk poetry myths. Because, guess what. Poetry isn’t going anywhere.