Taking a Second Look at Poetry

People don't like poetry. Not only don't they read it, they make fun of those who do; shaking their heads at them in a pitying sort of way, as if poetry lovers were slightly off-balanced. I don't judge them. After all, I don't get the appeal of muscular guys tossing each other around in carefully choreographed moves while pretending it's all real. I have, at least, tried watching such shows in an effort to understand. I wish the poetry haters and ignorers and disparagers would do the same.

I think most of the problem is in the way poetry is introduced to us. People often meet their first grown-up poems in school, where they're faced with titles like
Thanatopsis or Il Penseroso. That's enough to put anyone off. If they do get past the title they may find such welcoming first lines as "Eternal Spirit of the chainless Mind!" and "Hence, vain deluding Joys." I kid you not, we read all of these in my rural high school. And while I appreciate, even love them now, (except for Il Penseroso; it's what one might call a downer), I struggled through them back then. Because of these bad experiences, I have my own ideas of how to approach the subject. It goes beyond choosing poems that fit one's reading and comprehension level. Why not introduce poetry as mini-stories, a sort of text message on any topic imaginable?

If you crave adventure filled with unusual places and people, how about a beginning like this -- "I met a traveler from an antique land, who said; Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert." Interested? You won't find it in National Geographic. Try
Ozymandias by P. B. Shelley, instead. It's pretty short, so for a slightly longer tale I suggest this opening, "'Courage!' he said, and pointed toward the land, 'This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.'" (The Lotus-Eaters, Tennyson.) At the very least it might hold you until the next Patrick O'Brian novel comes out. Finally, what armchair traveler could resist learning more about Xanadu, where "Kubla Khan (did) a stately pleasure-dome decree"? Not to mention the sacred river Alph running through "canyons measureless to man down to a sunless sea." (Kubla Khan, Coleridge)

Probably everyone associates poems with love. Adolescents sigh over them, quote them, sometimes even write them. When we grow up many of us read romances, go to romantic movies, and long for long-stemmed roses and flowery words. Will "O my love is like a red red rose, that's newly sprung in June;" do? In a different vein, even I might be tempted by a book that opens "Come live with me and be my love, and we will all the pleasures prove..." Be warned, it's definitely not PG, and the movie version could turn out quite racy. (Robert Burns and Christopher Marlowe, respectively.)

Bookstore sell a lot of mysteries. I know I have shelves full of my favorites, and I'm not alone. For many, the discovery of a new book is cause for celebration -- and maybe an all night read-a-thon. Fortunately poetry isn't lacking here. A favorite from my childhood catches attention with these opening lines; "'Is there anybody there?' said the Traveler, knocking on the moonlit door." Who is this man referred to only as the Traveler? Why is he knocking on a stranger's door in the middle of the night?
Is there anyone there, and if so who, or worse yet, what? I still feel a creepy sense of foreboding when I read those lines. They're not by Lovecraft, King, or Holmes, but Walter de la Mare. It's called The Listener. Don't miss it. For more mysterious goings on try ""He disappeared in the dead of winter;" or "I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him down the arches of the years; I fled him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind." Go ahead and take a chance -- read a poem and have an adventure.
(W. H. Auden, then Francis Thompson.)

Poetry debates philosophy and ideas like reality and free will; it frequently muses on the meaning of life, not always at first glance. Poems can be probed forever and never quite comprehended, or they may mean absolutely nothing. They sing, warn, complain, chide, and lift our spirits. They also tell stories. Stories about people. Stories that begin like this; "That's my last duchess on the wall, looking as if she were still alive." (Robert Browning's
Last Duchess.) "He saw her from the bottom of the stairs before she saw him," Robert Frost tells us in Home
Burial. And Walt Whitman tempts the reader with a story where, "on the beach at night, stands a child with her father, watching the east," in his piece of the same name. Trust me, there really is a wealth of wonderful poetry out there waiting to be discovered. Maybe next time "When the quiet-colored end of evening smiles" you'll consider turning off the TV, reclaiming your favorite chair from the cat, and curling up with a good book. Of Poetry, of course.

Read Well, Friend

(In the first paragraph the poems are by John Milton, W. C Bryant, Byron's
Sonnet on Chillion, and Il Penseroso again. Final quote from Love Among the Ruins by Robert Browning.)


Joseph Ong said...

I agree! These days, poetry in high school is regarded, bluntly, as lame, corny, or for the socially reclusive. The system used in many schools reuses old classics and rarely focuses on the beauty of poetry. Not that the old classics are horrible, but as we teach generation after generation the same thing, the stereotypes we associate with poetry are slowly but deeply embedded within it!

Personally, I love poetry. I miss the days when kids would write poetry in middle school, without being chained to the wall of an assignment topic. Why do we limit ourselves to poetry dealing specifically with one topic? Students need to explore themselves with poetry. In middle school, we would write poetry on any topic we so chose, and add an artistic flash to it (perhaps a drawing in the background). Nowadays, in high school, it's common to hear "write a 12 line poem about a character from the book ___________". That method is good for training students how to focus on a topic, but it certainly neglects any outlets for true creativity.

I think I will sit down tonight and read some poetry. Perhaps I'll even write a poem about some odd, distant abstraction that I'm thinking of during the moments shortly after I finish a compilation of Robert Frost.

Bible first, though. =]

-Joseph [J]

Teri K said...

Joseph, by all means read your Bible first. It has poetry, too, you know. "...as we teach generation after generation the same thing, the stereotypes we associate with poetry are slowly but deeply embedded within it!" is very profound and insightful. May I save that quote and perhaps use it later, crediting you of course? It has implications beyond poetry.
I agree with your assessment of assigning poems with such strict parameters. It's an attempt to teach two things at once, but it can give a very false idea of poetry. As for creativity, there doesn't seem to much room for that these days, not in many courses, anyway. I like to offer students choices most of the time, myself.
I hope you enjoy your evening with the poets. I love Frost, myself. Good Reading!

Always a mom said...

So true that poetry gets the short end of the stick these days! Our children will all miss out on something quite wonderful. And good for you to suggest the Bible to Mr. Ong! Psalms 39, which I used as my "Scripture Of The Day" in my own post,yesterday, contains some most beautiful poetic verse. And the Bible is some of the best non-fictional reading there is!

Safety Squirrel said...

I'm not a big poetry fan, as most of the 'poetry' I've read is so loose in its prose that it's almost like having an acid trip while staring into a strobe light- it loses all relation to reality and becomes empty, meaningless twistings and contortions of words, as hollow as a fully made-up word deployed without definition. I enjoy Robert Frost's works because he uses poetry as a tool to tell a story, but I almost feel ashamed to like him, knowing that I, along with many others, only reference him first because he's the only poet I know -and like- off the top of my head. Almost akin to someone telling me that their favorite author is Stephen King without explaining any particularly tastes for certain pieces among King's many, MANY works.

What I think I can appreciate poetry for is daring, much more often than writing- which seems to not be terribly bothered by grammatical and linguistic organizations advocating almost authoritarian methods that are slowly closing their jaws around its throat,- to go out and play with language and words without a deaf, care-free ear turned to any nearby rabid authoritarians trying to get it to follow one format or another. I think that writing can learn a thing or two from poetry in that aspect.

Teri K said...

SS- Thanks for your insightful comments. I agree with your opening sentiment. In an effort to encourage exploring words, sounds, and unusual connection, some poets have sacrificed meaning. The best use words, sounds and ideas in fresh ways and convey more meaning than straight writing, not less. That's why Frost is both well liked and well respected. His writing works on every level.
As for playing with words and ideas, many do, of course, but I'm especially fond of E E Cummings and T S Eliot. Thanks again for the post. TTYL

Anonymous said...

Love poetry, like entering a separate frame of time to enjoy, savour words, thoughts and imagery. The kids can't appreciate it (for want of better description) because it doesn't fit within their 'speed' of things.

From Gwendolyn Brooks 1917 (last 4 lines) -
"And remember:
live not for Battles Won.
Live not for The-End-of-the-Song,
Live in the along."

..thank you for the Post.

teacherwriter said...

I had my ninth graders write nonets -- those so very structured poems. I received lots of complaints, but lots of great poetry :-)

My absolute favorite -- Robert Frost.

Wonderful blog site. Thank you.