Why is Poetry So Scary?

16 Mar

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.

(Mucha’s painting of the Poetry Muse)

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.)

  1. 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.

Ground Swell

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.


18 Responses to “Why is Poetry So Scary?”

  1. basementnotes March 16, 2011 at 2:32 pm #

    I love this—and I agree with the stupidity of teaching “poetry is hard.” I always throw one or two poems at my comp classes. Sometimes they get it, others not; we always discuss what’s happening. Isn’t music hard? Why do we listen to it, then?

    • redshana March 16, 2011 at 3:31 pm #

      I’ve always been surprised at how quickly students, especially in comp, are ready to accept poetry if you start with music. This is why I’m so convinced that most people’s issues with poetry are actually issues with confidence. They don’t have the confidence in their ability to read poetry but they DO have confidence in their ability to discuss Eminem and Nicki Minaj. So, why not start there?

  2. Erin Hodges March 16, 2011 at 3:19 pm #

    I’ll admit to being one of those people, and I was just having this discussion with a couple of friends the other day. I see lines that don’t fill up the whole page, and my eyes just glaze over or something. (The same thing happens with lists of things people like on online profiles, to be fair.) Reading it aloud helps, though. Maybe that’s why music is easier?

    I also feel like I have some basis to judge the quality of other types of writing. With poetry, it all just boils down to “um, I didn’t like that,” which I recognize is a valid opinion but feels…insufficient.

    • redshana March 16, 2011 at 3:29 pm #

      First of all, I think there’s an argument to be had for reading just about anything out loud. (It means we get the text through both audio and visual.) But I feel like there’s one thing you said that concerns me.

      Take your sentence: With poetry, it all just boils down to “um, I didn’t like that,” which I recognize is a valid opinion but feels…insufficient.

      Why is it that you feel your “not liking” it is insufficient. Take the word poetry and replace it with books. Would you say the same thing?

      Reading poetry is just like any genre. In fact, genre is a bad word. Because there are different genres of poetry. For example, Toby Barlow’s book “Sharp Teeth,” is actually a book length poem about werewolves.

      I’m not saying there are a lot of poems in that way but, just like anything else, if at first you don’t like it, I’d suggest trying something a little different before giving up on the whole of poetry.

      • Erin Hodges March 16, 2011 at 3:46 pm #

        I accept the validity of the point you’re making, Shana. Though I will say that I wouldn’t say the same thing about any genre of book I’d read. I can always find something to say about them…whether it’s the sentence structure, subject matter, validity of the argument, etc.

        I know most everything could be applied to poetry in the same way, but, for some reason, I can’t think about it the same. Maybe, as you suggested, it’s just a confidence issue. It’s also likely an exposure thing. Not “liking” poetry means I don’t read it, which means the issue just persists. But the trouble (and I have a similar, though milder form of this problem with fiction as well) is that I don’t even know where to start. Looking for a book of poetry I might like is overwhelming, so I give up. And the cycle continues. With nonfiction (which I read a lot of), I feel like I can judge a book quickly before I buy it. With fiction, much less so, and with poetry? Not at all.

        • redshana March 16, 2011 at 4:08 pm #

          Anything you can say about fiction, etc. you can say about poetry. It has arguments, plays with structure (sometimes in even more obvious ways than fiction) and so on.

          However, exposure is a problem that is harder to avoid or combat rather.

          While there’s something to new said for back-cover blurbs, it takes practice weeding through your choices to find out what you want to read.

          Having said that, sites like good reads or even poets.org are good places to begin if you’re interested.

          But if you’re not interested in expanding your reading, there’s an endless supply of reading materials in the world and that’s its own problem, right?

  3. Laura Poff March 16, 2011 at 9:53 pm #

    1) I totally agree with your assertion that it probably happens when teachers say or imply that it is hard. I have the same feelings about teaching math. There are so many elementary school teachers who have to teach one class all subjects who either hate or are intimidated by math, and that feeling has to get passed on, even if they never mention it.

    2) I LOVE poetry. I read poetry at night before I go to sleep and always have. Right now by my bed I have Pablo Neruda, Tony Hoagland (recommended by Hannah), and Symborska. I started with one measly Random House collection my mom bought me on a whim forever ago and then bought up poetry books as an adolescent. Now, though, I feel like I have two major hurdles to enjoying poetry. One is money. I enjoy reading in a book and books cost a lot of money. The other is knowing which poetry to get. I want more modern authors, but am not part of a world where I hear about them. There are also very specific types of poetry I don’t like and in trying to avoid buying those I end up leaving book stores with nothing sometimes…

    • redshana March 17, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

      Actually, one of the reasons I believe this so whole-heartedly is because I feel like this was what happened to be with math and science. They were the subjects I always was told, especially when I had difficulty with them, that it was my fault, that I just wasn’t good at math. By the time I had a few really great math teachers in high school, I had already lost interest in math and science.

      It’s taken me until now, where I can educate myself on science and math outside of the classroom (and at my own speed) that I wish I had taken advantage of the classes I had taken more.

      Also, I love that you still read poetry. And I feel your pain in finding what you like because a lot of what I get are from suggestions. However, I’ll say again, websites like Good Reads can help because if you can read through reviews. Also, you might want to spend some time on Poets.org, they have some samples of poets and you can always read a couple before buying a book by the same author.

      Finally, a less expensive thing to do might be subscribing to a literary magazine, or just picking up a couple. You’ll get a mix of poetry and other genres a lot of times, and you’ll get to sample authors, and support a struggling industry all in one move! OR and this is the last addendum, there are lots of on-line literary magazines, some of which are free.

      • Poff March 17, 2011 at 4:33 pm #

        Oh thanks! Can you suggest some literary magazines I could subscribe to? I will probably not do the online ones right now because I love having them on paper and next to my bed to read before bed and that just won’t work with my computer.

        • redshana March 17, 2011 at 5:27 pm #

          There are hundreds if not thousands of literary magazines. However, Gulf Coast Magazine (Hannah used to work here) and Third Coast Magazine (I work here) may be good places to start. Let me think of more and I’ll continue to get back to you 🙂

  4. Vanni March 17, 2011 at 6:46 pm #

    I hate poetry. Poetry is scary because it SUCKS!

    Just kidding.

    I didn’t start writing poetry until I randomly decided to take an Intro to Poetry class as an undergrad. That was three years ago, and I’ve been hooked since.

    Before that class, though, the only time I’d read poetry was in high school (Keats and the like), until I came across C.K. William’s collection, Repair, six years ago. That was a revelation, to say the least. I didn’t know poetry could be so accessible.

    In a roundabout way, I guess I’m basically saying that we need to educate others; not all poetry follows strict forms and meters! There is something out there for everyone.

    i ❤ poetry

    • redshana March 17, 2011 at 6:58 pm #

      I totally agree that the burden falls on those of us who found poetry on our own to spread the love.

  5. Jennifer Farmer March 19, 2011 at 1:41 am #


    I love that you are talking about this. I am passionate about the subject!

    The way we are taught to fear poetry is from the misunderstandings of high school English educators. They are required to teach a poetry section and somehow, that poetry seems to always be by old, very dead, white men. (They may toss in a tiny bit of Emily Dickinson, but only so they can marvel at her use of the dash – ahem.) If you’re a lucky student, you get one of those teachers who may add some Sylvia Plath in there to be mysterious and dark. But do they really understand what they are talking about? Unless they have an MFA in poetry, probably not to the extent that a student deserves.

    Sadly, this makes it sound like everyone needs a bloody MFA in poetry to understand poetry. Not so. What it does mean is that we scare the dickens out of students early on so when they reach the point of wanting to become English teachers, they also carry this fear into their careers. It is cyclical. Why do we persist in teaching 200 to 300 year old poetry in the classroom and then wonder why students dislike it and why poetry readership has never soared the way nonfiction has? It takes a very rare case of a reader who can enjoy Shakespeare for the sake of the poetry, or Donne, or Manly Hopkins, etc. when first introduced to it. However, like the poem you used to illustrate your point, I think that if we taught relevant poetry to high schoolers (middle and elementary also), we would find that people can relate and connect to the idea of the form, which is what seems to be the most forbidding aspect. (Ironically, we do teach relevant poetry to little kids in the form of Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, but then we beat them up later when we tell them to figure out the “meaning” of a poem and then poetry loses all its fun.)

    Furthermore, it seems the cycle needs to be broken by starting with the re-education of English lit teachers. (Which would mean a broad based campaign to redesign the requirements of school boards – something it seems that the Poetry Foundation with its financial backing would be able to do, or even if the Poet Laureate of the U.S. would be able to spearhead such a change. When Ted Whats-his-name was Poet Laureate he brought back the old poem in the newspaper idea to increase a greater readership – I think you have to begin even earlier than that.) It seems smarter to start with poetry that is relevant to the audience and then move back historically so a student has a context. Why such a fuss on starting at the “beginning” and then moving forward and pretending that Sylvia Plath is a “contemporary” poet? Silliness!

    Poetry offers up an experience – a single poem can translate the mystery of a moment or an entire life in a few short lines or stanzas. This is the momentum that it takes an entire book of fiction to achieve. You are right when you say it takes practice to truly become adept at accepting that awe that comes from understanding. In my experience, most things worth doing in this lifetime take practice. ; )

    Cheers to you, Shana, for opening the dialogue!

    • redshana March 19, 2011 at 4:25 pm #

      Absolutely Jen, and thanks for your own well-put comments.

      Let me add that, even when we don’t get scared away from poetry (I sure didn’t), that sometimes these teachers still give us horrible confusion! I’m still struggling to adapt my understanding of modern/contemporary etc. poetics because the first time around I was told the wrong things.

      While there has been some good effort made by people (Billy Collins spent his time as Poet Laureate creating the poem a day program, which is really cool) there still needs to be more effort and, let’s be serious, that includes how we think of what is literary too.

  6. Mariella March 20, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

    I agree with most of what you say. And I like poetry very much. Still I prefer prose over it. And here is why:
    One of the easiest and least complex ways to distinguish prose and poetry is that the further is the genre of objectivity and story telling while the letter is a genre of subjectivity and the description of emotions. Of course you have your hybrid forms that make this definition obsolete (lyrical ballads telling stories or fin-de-siecle narratives of inner monologue), but I think that it is agreed that if you look for a well-narrated story you turn to a novel or a short story and if you want to find a set of feelings well expressed you turn to poetry. Now the times when I was biggest on poetry were when I was 15 and lovesick big time for the first time in my life. I needed to dwell on that feeling and I needed to know I wasn’t the only one who had ever felt that way. I sought my own emotion that I couldn’t express to be put into words in poetry. I have to admit that my consumption of poetry decreased as I got older – mainly because I find that I have to be in a mood where I can bare it because it is so intense on feeling.
    Also I agree that it isn’t necessarily hard to understand – not harder than certain fiction anyway, James Joyce has me in despair every time! but it requires a significant higher amount of concentration than prose. Reading a novel you can skip a sentence every now and then, in a poem every line contributes to the beauty and the message. That is the beauty of it, but it also makes it the more demanding form of literature in my opinion. Most prose fiction that interests me I can read anytime. A lot of poetry that interests me requires me being awake, fit and in a good emotional condition.
    Finally, I think what contributes to the difficulties we have with poetry is that it is much much harder to translate. Most poetry I know by heart and cherish deeply is German (Rainer Maria Rilke… he makes you want to tear your heart out!), then there is quite a bit in English. Polish poetry I absolutely adore, but translations tend to be, frankly, shite and truly understanding the original takes me much longer. A word or two that I don’t understand can make all the difference (and I admit, more often than not I am a lazy reader who doesn’t feel like looking up the words, rewarding as it is when I do). And that is that on the languages I speak. Of course translations of prose fiction or drama can be equally bad, but poetry has all that rhythm and meter and melody going on that is so easily destroyed in translation.
    I guess what I am trying to say is that you grasp poetry with your heart and more than with your mind (as is the case with prose more often than not). And for that I am not always strong enough because it crosses certain limits to my inner self. It is the entire beauty of it, but also its danger. I think people who claim poetry to be hard to understand are the ones who try to grasp it solely with their minds, and that’s not always possible.

    • redshana March 20, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

      I actually think these are both misconceptions about prose and poetry. That is to say, the idea that prose is more “objective” and that poetry is about “emotions” while that used to be at times for each genre, they are growing and changing art forms that are impossible to limit by those generalities. There are as many emotionally based prose pieces (novels or stories) as there are narrative poems. That’s all I’ll say on that.

      As far as translating goes, they have different difficulties. Prose pieces of a longer length require a focus on flow of the text and making sure you keep things consistent, to just start talking about it. Poetry has a lot more focus on diction, and the precise meaning of each word. And yeah, the issue of reading stuff in translation or translating as you read is always going to be complicated. But there’s lots of great poetry in every language, I’m glad you love Rilke, I love him too.

      I think there are easy reads in both poetry and prose, but I also thing texts are as easy or as hard as you make them sometimes.

      • Mariella March 20, 2011 at 2:22 pm #

        I know that the distinction of subjectivity and objectivity is a very general one. Still I think that it is what many people have in mind when they are scared of poetry. They are not scared of stories as much as they are of being confronted with emotions, and you come across an emotional poem faster than a narrative one. Like you say the fear of poetry is widely based on misconceptions, and this might be one of them. They still hold true for many people. Unfortunately, one might add.


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