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Poetry Series: What is Poetry, and Why Read It?

April is National Poetry Month! In celebration, the Books We Read team is posting a series on the poetry we enjoy, and why we enjoy poetry in the first place.

PoetryAs a researcher I focus on prose, but I think it’s fair to say that as a teacher I’ve had the most fun with poetry. I think it’s because poems (at least lyric poems, which covers practically all contemporary poetry) tend to be bite-sized morsels that nonetheless have plenty to chew on: they’re designed to be read all at once, with careful attention to each word and line, so that you can hold the whole thing in your mind all at once while examining each of the parts. That kind of structure is perfect for a classroom discussion.

The other reason I like teaching poetry is that so many people think they don’t like poetry. I used to be one of them, and now I go around with the zeal of a convert, challenging poetry skeptics to broaden their horizons.

For instance, do you like music with lyrics? If you do, then I’d argue that you already appreciate poetry, or at least know how to. (The Nobel Prize Committee, which awarded singer-songwriter Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature back in 2016 for “having created poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” would agree.) Poetry is most easily defined as a work of language that calls attention to its qualities as language, not just the information it conveys. The qualities of language that poems call attention to often have to do with the sound of words and phrases (like rhyme and rhythm), as well as the capacity of words to call up vivid images or to make comparisons (metaphor and simile). Maybe this accounts for why poetry can be so obtuse and confusing: some poems are deliberately hard to translate into a coherent message or “normal” language––like Bob Dylan’s notoriously loopy lyrics––so as to force the reader/listener to approach the language in a different way, to enjoy the sound of the words and the associations they call up for their own sake.

Related to this occasional difficulty of poetic language, I believe that one of the main reasons that people don’t like poetry is that they think they aren’t appreciating it “correctly.” That’s probably because most people’s exposure to poetry is in the classroom, and so reading a poem makes them feel like they’re back in the classroom, being evaluated on how well they “get it.” I think it’s that feeling that a lot of people have at art museums (or at least I have it at art museums sometimes): feeling like the thing you’re looking at should be speaking to you in some way, but it’s not, so you wind up feeling not just bored but also inadequate somehow. You stroke your chin and try to look like you’re having a good time, all the while wondering how long you’re supposed to stare at this weird picture before it’s acceptable to move on.

Approaching poetry (or a museum) in this way is a recipe for frustration. Instead, I think the best way is to focus on what you’re actually feeling or thinking as you read it, not the insights you think you’re supposed to be having for some imaginary essay. (This is actually a better way to start discussing a poem in the classroom too, instead of trying to leap directly to what it all means, but I digress.) How you’re feeling might be “this poem is boring, I’m moving on”––and that’s fine! Or it could be “this poem sounds pretty”––and that’s perfect! You’ve found a poem you like, and there are no wrong answers for why you like it; just opportunities for interesting conversations. Put another way, reading poetry should be like wine or beer tasting. There’s a whole vocabulary for describing what you’re experiencing, and it can be fun to acquire and use it, but the important thing is to enjoy what you drink and to drink what you enjoy. (Please read responsibly!)

With that in mind, here are some poems that are easy to love, like a jammy Shiraz or a crisp Pilsner––and that help pinpoint what’s distinctive about poetic language itself. (In case you hadn’t already guessed, that sort of meta-poem is my favorite kind, sort of like how the Academy Awards voters are suckers for movies about movies.) Ogden Nash’s short verses, particularly about animals, show how silly poetry can be––specifically how it can bring out the silliness in words themselves. Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “Swear Words” takes up a special class of words that always connote something different from what they literally mean, and how funny they can become in translation. Finally, Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry” is full of vivid metaphors for how to approach poetic language, and how not to. When I first read Collins’ poem in high school, I resented the implication that left-brained, type-A, analytic readers like me were doing something wrong by trying to jump directly to what a poem means. Now, I think I get how taking time to “waterski/ across the surface of a poem,” or to swish it around your mouth like a fine wine, is a part of coming to understand not only what a poem means but what it is.

We hope you enjoy some of our favorite poems, and how they’ve prompted us to reflect on poetry more broadly. For more, the Poetry Foundation website is always a great (free) resource for discovering poets and poems you like. Happy Poetry Month!