Why don’t more Americans read poetry? Reviewing Marie Ponsot’s newest collection of poems in The New York Times Book Review, David Orr offered this explanation: “One of the best things about being an American is that you are free to dislike poetry for whatever reason you want. You can say that it’s too clever or too dumb; you can think it’s old-fashioned or pointlessly trendy; you can protest it has nothing to do with real life or you can complain that it’s mostly about Volkswagens and mastectomies. Whatever line you take, there will be room for your opinion in our larger, national antipathy for this snotty, boring, passé art form.”
To be fair, I should point out that this passage is merely the introduction to a piece in which the author goes on to praise Ponsot’s work and to consider some of the downsides to completely discounting poetry. But even a poetry enthusiast like myself must admit that the reasons Orr gives for poetry’s small readership seem not only familiar, but accurate. The fact that more poetry is being published now than ever before means more bad poetry is available to readers than in previous decades, and most of it probably conforms in some way to Orr’s criticisms. The same can be said of any art form, however, because they all have successes and failures. Should we really swear off movies in general, for example, just because last summer’s Goldmember was a disappointment?
The last time most Americans read a poem was in the classroom, which must be where we first began thinking of poetry as “snotty, boring, passé.” Orr’s adjectives describe my own experience with poetry in middle and high school perfectly. Poetry was snotty when I didn’t “get” it, when it seemed too hard and too high-brow, boring when it did nothing at all to stir me, and so passé that if I had read Carl Sandburg’s Now They Bury Her Again at the time, I certainly would have agreed with the lines,
woe is us or maybe it’s just as well, poetry is
on a slab in the morgue, nameless, unidentified, two
blue holes in her back from an ice pick.
It wasn’t even bad poetry, yet I hated it—probably because the only thing the teacher ever asked was, “What is this poem about?” This sort of education leads children to become like the characters in Billy Collins’s Introduction to Poetry who only want to “tie the poem to a chair with rope/ and torture a confession out of it” and then “begin beating it with a hose/ to find out what it really means.” Students whose sole experience with poetry was a tortuous one in school almost certainly grow up ready to add to David Orr’s list of reasons for hating it.
After seventh grade, I wanted to burn my poetry textbook, but kept The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because I knew I’d enjoy it even if I didn’t understand the “meaning” of the river. I think most Americans prefer fiction to verse because we can enjoy a story and feel a connection to a group of characters without completely recognizing the symbolism, narrative devices, or recurring images the author uses. Because we are taught to read poetry plot-wise as we would a novel, however, poems we don’t “get” completely just aren’t enjoyable, which seems to defeat the very purpose of the art.
Rather than approaching poetry through the foundations of prose, we need to allow verse its own ground apart from that of other genres. The basic focus of poetry is not plot but sound, so to enjoy poetry we cannot grasp completely, we must allow ourselves to take pleasure in its sound alone. This is possible because, as T.S. Eliot said, “Genuine poetry…can communicate before it is understood.” In addition to calling on teachers to “liberate” poetry from literary criticism, Dana Gioia in Can Poetry Matter? writes that to make poetry a valued art form once again, “The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized. The pleasure of the performance is what first attracts children to poetry, the sensual excitement of speaking and hearing the words of the poem.” How can a nation that loves music and performers resist an art form whose basic elements include rhythm and recital?
If your last experience with poetry left something to be desired, perhaps you’d like to give it another chance and revive it from the slab it’s been occupying in the morgue. Here are some suggestions to get you going:
To understand the role that poetry can play in everyday American life, look no further than Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project. The anthologies he has edited with Maggie Dietz, Americans’ Favorite Poems and Poems to Read, are a great place to read poetry. (You can access the on-going project, as well as a video archive of favorite poem presentations at www.favoritepoem.org.)
J.D. McClatchy’s The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry and The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry are good, broad anthologies of twentieth century verse that include brief biographies of the selected poets along with a handful of their poems. After reading an anthology like either of these two, you will be better able to hone in on the specific poets you want to read more of. The Best American Poetry Series, edited by David Lehman, produces an annual collection that is chosen by a well-known poet from the year’s issues of literary journals. These books give you a quick look into what’s happening in the current American poetry “scene,” although be warned that the book is unavoidably biased by the guest editor’s preferences. The best thing about the series is that each book includes comments from the selected poets on their included poems. Another anthology that includes both poems and essays by poets is First Loves: Poets Introduce the Essential Poems that Captivated and Inspired Them, edited by Carmela Ciuraru. Here you’ll discover why, for example, reading John Donne’s The Flea in a college English class inspired Billy Collins to try his own hand at poetry.
Anthologies are ideal for gaining broad exposure to poetry in a short number of pages (and they are especially appreciated by those of us with thin wallets and short attention spans), but delving into a single poet’s work can also be very satisfying. I find Yehuda Amichai and Pablo Neruda an excellent pair with which to begin a foray into verse.
What should you be looking for in the poetry you read? I say throw whatever you know or think you know about poetry out the window. Exercise your right as an American to enjoy what everyone else disparages, to root for the underdog, to form your own opinion. Trust yourself: if it sounds good, if it teaches you, if it brings you closer to another person, then it is good. The way poetry allows you to open your mouth and breathe life into someone else’s words on a page remains its most important quality. Finding that moment of human connection with someone who may have lived in a different age, on a different continent, is one of the most stirring reasons not to underestimate poetry. “Would I like poetry so well if it weren’t for Countee Cullen?” writes Amy Whitney, introducing one of his poems in Poems to Read. “Maybe. But that a middle-aged, middle-class, stay-at-home mom could be so moved by something written half a century ago by a young black man—well, that’s something.” That “something” is a sentiment Seph Rodney echoes when he remembers first reading Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus: “There I was, a seventeen-year-old boy from Jamaica opening a book written by a white woman so far away from me, and yet she spoke my own life. I love that she did that for me. I love that poetry still does that.”
The best poetry distills your own thoughts and experiences; it reveals something you’ve always known, but in words more vibrant and succinct than you could imagine. As a case in point, I’ll end by quoting William Carlos Williams, who like so many of my favorite poets, said what I’ve been trying to, only better:
My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in