Many of you are familiar with Serena, who runs several blogs including Savvy Verse & Wit and Poetic Books Tours. Serena is not only an actual poet herself, but a tireless promotor of other poets and poetry. We were talking about poetry in emails, and decided to share some of our thoughts on a blog post, as well as solicit other ideas. We encourage you to add your own thoughts in the comment section!
Q1: Why Isn’t Poetry More Popular?
My theory about why people avoid poetry is that they think it’s too hard to read and understand, and much of that has to do with how they were taught about poetry as children. Many teachers taught poetry, pulling it apart and suggesting meanings, rather than allowing students to read the poems or perform them in class and determine their own reactions to them.
Carrying around all that angst about poetry is hard to break, and poetry is so much wider now than it has been with poets writing fairy tales and others delving into science fiction, and other genres. Poetry is boundless.
From my experience, young children focus better on stories in books when two elements are present: pictures they can relate to and rhymes. Rhymes are like music to them and focus their attention on what you’re saying. If your young child is ever not listening, starting telling them what you want in rhyme. It’s worked for me on several occasions.
Discovering poetry also requires work because marketers and publishers DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT publicize it well, if at all, unless its a well-known poet, like Billy Collins. This forces readers to find out from friends, blogs, and other resources what poetry is out there and try it out. I recommend starting with a poem-a-day email service, like the one from the Academy of American Poets. This way, readers can find new poets without having to buy books they may not like at all. Another option is find a local reading, attend, and buy a book if you like what you hear.
I agree that many people avoid poetry because they fear it is difficult to understand. I can relate to this. I can’t make heads or tails out of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” beyond the first section (“April is the cruellest month . . .”), even though this poem is widely regarded as one of the most important poems of the 20th century. But if I had let a fear of Eliot deter me, I would have never read his 1917 masterpiece “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It is not only my favorite poem, but I think it significantly affected my understanding of, and approach to, life. I hate to imagine never having read it!
Excerpt from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:
I grow old…I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind?
Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers,
and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
Ironically, Eliot had an enduring effect on popular culture in spite of a lack of familiarity by many with his actual poems. For example, it was his book of poems called “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” that inspired the Broadway play “Cats.” And for that matter, think of the effect on culture of the conclusion to his 1925 poem “The Hollow Men”:
“This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.”
And just to add to what Serena said about effective ways of teaching poetry, check out this great post over at James Reads Books on methods for teaching seventh graders about poetry and memoir using Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming.
Q2. What is your favorite poem or poet and why?
I will pick one poem, and I don’t usually talk about this one. It’s a poem I absolutely hated in school, but now I love it.
In a Station of the Metro by Ezra Pound
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
You can see why someone would not like this short poem — I mean other than being short — what is it saying? As a teen, I had no idea.
Having since lived in several cities, I can see how these faces in the subway could be like apparitions, flitting by and nearly unreal. Is the pavement wet, resembling a black tree limb in the distance, and the faces of the travelers the petals, perhaps falling away in the wind. There are so many ways to view this poem, and it’s only two lines. Perhaps he’s talking about the ephemeral nature of life itself?
Why has this become a favorite poem? Because I find my poetry has a heavy focus on image, and I rarely tell stories without images, trying to view something typical as unique, etc. [You can read the poems of Ezra Pound here.]
As I mentioned above, my favorite poem is T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” But I have a few others that are close runners-up, and more specifically, a few stanzas within a few poems that are my favorites, two of which come from e.e. cummings, such as these excerpts:
a doll wired
to the radiator of his
icecoalwood truck . . .
. . .
& every now and then my
friend dominic depaola
gives me a most tremendous hug
we & worlds
than dolls &
I also love this [excerpt of a poem] from e.e. cummings:
. . . life’s not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis
In addition, this well-known stanza from “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae continues to astonish me by its compact and devastating insight about war and death:
We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
I guess the common denominator of what makes these my favorites is the way they give voice to something I didn’t even know I was thinking. (And if I had been thinking it, it wouldn’t have been in such a coherent and lyrical way!)
And to quote James Reads Books again, as he eloquently states:
“The best poems evoke, suggest. Prose describes through detail, wears its heart on its sleeve. Poetry, even when it wallows in detail after detail, refrains from naming. It neither shows nor tells. The reader must do the work; the writer has left the page.”
Q3. Are novels in verse one long poem? (This question was inspired by a comment by Kathy from the blog “Bermuda Onion” on my April 1 post welcoming National Poetry Month and posing the question, “What Is Poetry?”)
My short answer to this one is YES. I love novels in verse, and why does that make them any less poetry. Narrative poems often tell stories, just in a shorter form. Who is to say that a novel in verse did not begin as a single narrative poem, and think of The Odyssey by Homer and others like it. Those are epic poems, and they tell stories.
And now, I’ve made you wonder what the difference between an epic poem and a novel in verse is, haven’t I? Epic poems tell stories, but there also is a music to them and rhythm, and they have an element of surprise in them. Novels in verse, however, must keep in mind the structure of a novel or novella in that there needs to be description and dialogue, as well as not merely be prose with line breaks. In many ways, I think that these novels are harder to craft because the form must do double-duty.
I agree with Serena totally. I would just emphasize, I think, that while adherence to structure is more evident in a poem – however short or long – than in a novel – of course novel writers put a great deal of effort into structure as well.
Speaking of form, here are two of Serena’s haikus, both of which were published in Lynx, an online poetry journal. On the site from which you can access Lynx, you can also learn about the haiku form of poetry.
frozen tears on my eyeball
the wind swept you out.
white skin, concrete head
red nose chilled with wind
stubborn, glued to you.
The responses to National Poetry Month roundups of links have been overwhelming. Just look, for example, at the sheer number and diverse nature of entries over at Jama’s Alphabet Soup, here. How does that square with our lamentations that poetry is neglected?
For one thing, many of the links at Jama’s Amphabet Soup relate to poetry for kids. Books for children often reflect the fact that kids love not only rhymes, but metaphors and other literary devices (such as onomatopoeia) commonly used in poetry to paint pictures with words. And, if all that doesn’t convince you about how much kids love rhyming, consider these two words: Dr. Seuss!
Secondly, people seem willing to engage in extending reading behaviors when there is a special day or even month devoted to the practice, and all the more so if there is a widely subscribed-to meme in the blogosphere for sharing these new reading adventures.
But most of the year? The posts of poetry on blogs are few and far between.
Anyone else care to say why you do or don’t like poetry, and/or what your favorites are? We would love to hear other opinions and thoughts!