National Poetry Month is drawing to a close this week and I haven’t added anything significant to the conversation. Partially, this is due to my odd relationship with poetry that isn’t read aloud at a local slam. Growing up, poetry was fun. It rhymed. It made you laugh. Sometimes it made you think. Sometimes it made you roll your eyes. And all of those reactions were triggered after 15 minutes with a Shel Silverstein book.
But as I moved into my teens and later went off to university, I learned that poetry was “serious business.” Poets died starving artists who clamored for recognition while trying to get others to acknowledge the dark, disparaging recesses of the human experience. Every poem had to be dissected, and every dissection had to be validated. No matter what conclusion you draw during your independent study, you were wrong because the teacher instructed you that the poem actually meant “this” not “that” and all your pontificating was an exercise in deconstruction. Ta da!
Although I appreciate the Mr. Miyagi approach to education, and goodness knows I love a solid liberal arts program, I walked away feeling like poetry was well over my head. I would break down every stanza, analyze, find patterns, re-analyze, and still arrive at the conclusion that I was simply too shallow to grasp the heady issues that tear at poets’ souls.
Then, I attended my first poetry reading. Not a poetry slam. But a poetry reading. The featured poet of the hour: The late, great Gwendolyn Brooks. I remember I sat in the audience drowsy from a late night of paper composition and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine reruns. In the morning, I had to talk myself into attending the event, but I knew if I had not gone, I would regret it.
So there I sat. Listening to an American icon of poetry and literature share some of her most revered and poignant works with a bunch of college students who saw poetry as a highbrow art form that required countless hours of study. But Brooks’ work was different. In a one-hour presentation, her reading showed us that a gifted poet doesn’t need a beleaguered analysis on all fronts. A gifted poet can invade your senses in 90 seconds and live in your psyche for months on end.
Brooks’ work carried messages that did not fall on deaf ears that day. Some of us gained a stronger understanding of how brevity can be more powerful than soliloquies, and how social taboos can be born, vilified and die in the span of a decade. And that is the power of poetry.
It can delight us (Shel Silverstein). It can educate us (Dr. Seuss). It can console us (Anne Sexton). It can mirror us (Langston Hughes). It can haunt us (Gwendolyn Brooks). It can embarrass us (Anais Nin). It can scare us (Edgar Allen Poe). It can uplift us (Edna St. Vincent Millay). And it can strike us (Edwin Arlington Robinson).
Poetry may have its detractors and seem beyond the intellectual reach of the common man. But I would argue that it is the common man who needs it most. It took me removing poetry from the classroom to learn its value. Here’s hoping others will learn of it too before moving on to more “accessible” art forms. And here’s hoping professors learn to teach an appreciation of the art form without branding it worthy of only intellectual pursuit.
Who is your favorite poet? What is it about their poetry that makes you connect with their work?