It comes so naturally to me: reading them, writing them. That’s not to say it isn’t work. It surely is, but it’s also pleasure, and it’s sad to me when adults have given up on poetry. We all loved Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, after all. What happened? Some blame teachers, some blame readers, some blame poets, some blame poems. I don’t know who or what to blame, only that I have poems for y’all. Allow me to reintroduce the form.
1. The Poet Is Not Trying To Trick You
The poem is not a codex of obscure hieroglyphs assembled by a total jerk. If it is, feel free to skip it. Poems are subject to the same standard as all other forms of writing: they must answer the question, “So what?” Poets have looked at a common thing for a really long time and devised a way to capture its essence. As a reader, you will develop a taste for the essential things that matter to you. Maybe you’re just not that into plums. That’s okay. You’re not missing some deeper meaning.
2. It’s Not A Race
How would your kidneys feel if you snacked on bouillon cubes by the handful? Poems are so condensed that reading them too quickly is like your brain on bouillon cubes. Slowing down, adding water (a pause, some silence, re-reading lines, reading the whole thing twice), helps you mentally digest. Choose your own pace, one that balances enjoyment with comprehension. You don’t have to study, but you do have to focus. If you can’t focus, try again or move on.
3. There Won’t Be A Test
You know Howl by Allen Ginsberg? Great poem. I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about, mainly because I was born long after the political context in which the poem was written. Now, if you want to deeply understand a poem, by all means get the version with multiple footnotes on every page, scribble in the margins, and educate yourself. It’s the difference between being a wine aficionado and a wine drinker. Either way, just enjoy the flavors you taste. There’s no need to get hung up on obscure allusions or old-timey diction. If you need proof that you can love a poem without being able to defend a dissertation on it, look no further than this 3-year-old boy. Aww!
4. The Poet Does Not Think They’re Better Than You
Look, it’s easy for a poet to seem pretentious if they delve into territory with which you’re unfamiliar. Forgive us nerds: at times, we get really excited about the things we like (puppies!) and in our urgency to share the excitement, we might forget not everybody shares our obsessions, nor is everyone totally tripped out by that one bird doing the thing at sunrise. Eh, just enjoy our passion, pat us on the head, and change the subject to something you care about.
5. Form Does Not Equal Stiffness.
“but SOFT! what LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS! “(long, dramatic pause)
Stop that. Who told you to do that? It sounds like a song played back while turning the volume way up and way down. Why would you add jarring fade-ins and fade-outs? The poem is good at a normal volume (oof, Romeo), with its natural fade-ins and -outs. Reading is just playback of the words, line breaks, and punctuation you see on the page. The rules don’t change just because there are more line breaks and unique combinations of words. Relax. A good poem will instruct you on how it sounds like sheet music instructs an experienced sight-reader.
6. Poems Are Music, First And Foremost
If they aren’t hoity-toity, overstuffed, academic word puzzles, what are they? I started writing poems in fifth grade. I never turned back, because it’s fun. It’s fun to pen a little ditty that delights and/or moves audiences. Granted, poets are guilty of using poet voice, which is a sure way to put audiences to sleep and diminish the beauty of their own work. Alas, some poets are composers who write well, but never learned to play the instrument they can hear so clearly in their heads. Don’t let that confuse you into abusing your own voice when reading. If you can decently sing along to a song on the radio, you can decently read a poem, out loud or in your head.
YouTube Channel: Mr. Gardner
Take it from Billy Collins. Poems are nice. They don’t bite. What works of poetry have you been reading lately?
YouTube Channel: Jen Campbell
Featured image via Juniper Books