Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Poetry Should Welcome You In

How many times have I heard someone say, “I don’t understand poetry”? It’s so discouraging, because most of the time I really don’t think it’s that person’s fault. Over the past century or so, poetry has been stolen from the people and turned into a trained monkey on a chain held by the university English departments. Gradually poets have learned to give the academy what it wants: carefully constructed conundrums to be deciphered by the initiated. It begins to feel like only those who’ve studied the literary canon, and have spent a lot of time with contemporary poetry, are likely to get anything out of such poetry at all.

In my opinion, the best poetry invites readers in. I’m not saying we should “dumb down” our art, but simply that we need to communicate what the readers need to know in order to find their way through the poem.

The reason poets don’t simply come out and tell you certain things is because you need to dwell within the poem, figuring things out enough to make yourself part of the process. This only happens when you have a little work to do. Poetry is meant to help you experience something, not to just tell you about it. If you’re told a girl is sad, you will only process that mentally as a statement of fact; if the poet can draw you into feeling the girl’s despair, he’s created art.

Sometimes a poem can begin in a very confusing manner, but as you read on, things begin to make sense. You stop reading, and return to the opening lines with new understanding. Poetry should leave you with something to reflect upon, and to make your own. This doesn’t happen when poems are merely rhythmic sermon illustrations — on one extreme — or too difficult to understand — on the other. When you read a poem, you often won’t totally understand everything the poet says, but you should be able to understand enough after reading it through once to continue. Hopefully something will grab you in a way to make you want to spend more time with it.

Often people respond by finding their poetry elsewhere. They cherish the lyrics to popular songs, or quote lines from the movies they’ve seen, but rarely do such sources demand of writers as much as poetry does; rarely do they reach such poetic heights.

In my poetry chapbook, So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed, I tell stories of my grandparents years in China as missionaries. My desire is to create poetry that is accessible to intelligent readers who’ve not spent much time with poetry.

If you believe you don’t understand poetry, I would encourage you to spend a little time with the writing of such poets as Luci Shaw, Wendell Berry, or George Whipple — writers whose poetry is often quite accessible. A fascinating world is waiting to welcome you in.


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