It’s April, which means it’s National Poetry Month, which gives me an excuse to write about poetry.
If you are a person who read excuse to write about poetry and settled in happily to read about one of your favorite subjects – I’m very sorry, this post isn’t really for you. Also, I may insult your favorite poet in a couple paragraphs. Again, apologies. Feel free to defend them in the comments.
This is not a post for poetry lovers. This post is for folks who were enthralled by Dead Poets Society, and then felt totally betrayed when, upon further inspection, it was actually Robin Williams, not poetry, that they loved.
We’ve all been there.
I am not a life-long poetry lover. I always wanted to be – I bought poetry collections, and imposed enviable qualities onto poetry readers. But when faced with words on the page I went cross-eyed and got impatient. I felt like I was trying to divine the point of poems through a crystal ball. I don’t care what things are like! I wanted to shout at the poems. What are you talking about??
I love poetry now.
So, this is a numbered list of everything I had to learn about poetry in order to love poetry. I am by no means an expert – you’ll notice it’s a very short list. But, if you have felt personally victimized by poetry at any point in your past, but you still want to take a crack at demystifying the poetry section of your favorite indie bookstore – or poetry bookstore! – and you don’t know where to start, maybe this post will help.
So here it is: everything I know about poetry
1. Poetry is a learned language.
I didn’t really play video games until the last few years, and let me tell you -- it was a steep learning curve. I didn’t understand the most basic aspects of games. My poor sister, a life-long gamer, was flabbergasted (though very patient) by how oblivious I was to what were, to her, very obvious cues.
As I learned how to play, I learned not just the rules to one game, but to games in general. For example, if something is glowing, I should probably go look at it. Also, pushing M on my keyboard usually brings up a map. Essentially, I learned the language of video games, and now I enjoy them much more.
It’s the same thing with poetry.
I think there’s a misconception that a poem is plucked whole out of a poet’s soul, that each poem is an alchemical, holy object, and if you don’t understand it, you must be intrinsically unpoetic. I certainly felt like that at one point. I thought that I lacked whatever instinctual, mystical gene poets and poetry lovers had, and therefore I was predisposed to never understand poetry, no matter how much I wanted to.
That’s not the case. Understanding poetry isn’t innate, it's learned – just like everything else is. That is the first thing I know for certain about poetry: you have to learn how to read it. And how do you learn? By practicing.
2. Poetry is, at its core, very simple.
This might irritate certain people -- and if you’re irritated, please, by all means, leave comments, I love to argue -- but for our purposes, poetry is very simple.
You know when you watch a really good music video, and somehow in 3 and half minutes it packs in the emotional journey of an entire feature film? There’s rarely dialogue, there’s often not even a complete narrative -- but the images, combined with the music, evoke a huge emotional response.
Poetry does a similar thing. By stringing images together, the poet shows you what they want you to see, in an effort to elicit a specific emotional response. And that’s it, that’s the poem.
I can hear you all asking, but what about line breaks? What about stanzas? What about enjambment? Don’t worry – that’s just punctuation.
In fact, I’m willing to bet you already know how to deconstruct poetry’s punctuation. If you’ve spent any time on social media, you already KNOW THAT THIS MEANS I’M SHOUTING and when I write
you should slow down for emphasis. Poetry has a stylistic punctuation it employs to change the way you read it. Very simple. Nothing to be intimidated by.
Now, those of you who remember intro to poetry classes are probably thinking about sonnets, and sestinas, and rhyme schemes, and haikus, and villanelles, and rules, rules, rules, and listen: I know. I remember 10th grade English class, too. All that stuff gets confusing.
I promise, there’s a simple explanation.
Why does poetry seem to have a bunch of insane rules? Because poets are nerds.
Poets like to create rules for themselves to follow when they write. It’s a puzzle. The point is to solve the puzzle elegantly. Sometimes the puzzle forces the poet to be creative in new and unexpected ways. It’s fun.
So why do poetry readers love the rules? The same reason people love watching sports: a sport played well is beautiful to watch. Reading a perfectly executed sestina is satisfying. Plus, when you understand the rules, it’s like being on the inside of a joke, which feels nice.
Now, I’m sure that there are certain poetry scholars that are appalled by this vast oversimplification, and I’m sure their concerns are valid. But we’re not poetry scholars. We’re poetry readers, and we’re still at the beginning. There’s plenty of time for nuance later.
For now, what you need to know is that despite what you have been led to believe, poetry is very simple.
3. All poetry is not for everyone
Are you currently bashing your head against your desk trying to plow through Rimbaud’s collected works?
I have a solution for you: stop. Just stop! The world won’t end if you don’t love Tennyson. Whitman was a vicious westward expansionist, Ezra Pound was a fascist, and Mary Shelley created an entire new genre of fiction to escape spending a weekend with Byron. You don’t owe these old dudes anything! There is no poetry door that will slam shut in your face if you can’t wade through the self-insert bible fanfiction that is Dante’s Inferno.
If you hate it, put it down. Find something you like. Maybe try reading poems by people who are alive. Maybe someday you’ll reach the point where you want to read the classics – I did! I love old dead people poetry! Rimbaud’s Complete Works was one of my all-time favorite reading experiences! But just like you don’t have to read Don Quixote, or War and Peace, or Age of Innocence, to appreciate current literature, you don’t have to read Keats, Dickinson, or Beaudelaire to understand modern poetry.
Poetry is ever-evolving, and unpretentious. Find a poet you love, and read them – and when you’re done, find another.
4. How to find poets you love
There are lots of ways to find poetry you actually enjoy. You could, for example, check out this Youtube channel, in which people read a poem they love out loud to you. Or, you could grab an anthology and make your way through it, picking out poems you like. Or, you could find a book about how to write poetry and read the examples they include in the book, as those are often wonderful poems selected for their accessibility. Lithub posts poems weekly, and I find poets I’ve never heard of there.
But if you want to know how I really started loving poetry, this is what I did: a professor in college, herself a wonderful poet, and the best writing teacher I’ve ever had, made us read 10 collections by 10 diverse poets from the last thirty or so years. Some of them were very famous, some of them were not. Some of the books I loved, some I was ambivalent about. She didn’t make us write any analysis of them, or dissect them to death. We just had to read them.
So, those of you that have made it this far, gather round. Hopefully the books on this list, lovingly compiled by Third Place poetry lovers, can be your teachers.
Quilting by Lucille Clifton
This book was the lightbulb book for me. Little college me read this collection and finally realized what we were all doing sitting in a poetry class on a perfectly nice day. In the forward to The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, Toni Morrison called Clifton’s work “seductive with the simplicity of an atom, which is to say highly complex, explosive under an apparent quietude.” Take note of how rarely she capitalizes anything, and her sparing use of punctuation. It makes the poems feel almost like someone is speaking them right into your ear.
She Had Some Horses by Joy Harjo
Joy Harjo has been Poet Laureate since 2019, and you should read everything she writes, but for the purposes of this list, I chose She Had Some Horses because of the horses motif. According to the 2008 introduction, people have been asking what do the horses mean since the book came out in 1984, and I think that’s a useful question to ask when you’re learning. Especially since, in the intro she wrote in 2008, she answers the question: “It’s not the poet’s work to reduce the poem from poetry to logical sense.” She also says, “Horses, like the rest of us, can transform and be transformed.”
Like by A. E. Stallings
Remember what I said up there about sonnets, and sestinas, and rhyme schemes, and haikus, and villanelles, and rules, rules, rules? Well, this book revels in rules and forms and syllabics. It gives you villanelles, sonnets, and sestinas so meticulous and fresh they’re practically ticking. You might love the rules, and this is the perfect place to discover them.
Feeld by Jos Charles
Feeld, on the other hand, explodes the rules. The flap describes this collection as “Chaucerian in affect, but revolutionary in effect,” which in practice means that the words in the poems are spelled as if in Middle English. It forces you to spend time with the phonetics of the words. I recommend reading the poems out loud. Actually, that’s sound advice for any time you get stuck reading poetry, but in this collection it’s especially useful.
Just Us by Claudia Rankin
Lots of poetry is political because lots of poets' identities are politicized. This is definitely not the only political book on this list, but I wanted to include a book that is specifically about working for social change. This collection blends poetry, essays, and images in order to discuss racism in America. It is frank, intimate, and compassionate, and an absolute master class in the ways poetry can be employed to facilitate serious social and political conversations.
God I feel Modern Tonight by Catherine Cohen
No one tells you that jokes are allowed in poetry, but they are, and when poets make jokes, you have permission to laugh. This rule holds true for all poetry, but this book is a very blatant example. It reads a little bit like getting unhinged texts from your best friend in the middle of the night. Actually, when she wrote I only like songs that sound like surfing/but then the lyrics are like “I want to die” I did text my best friend. The collection is hilarious, a little deranged, and then suddenly profound.
Obit by Victoria Chang
Obit is about grief. After the author’s mother died, she wrote poetic obituaries for everything she’s lost. It’s a devastating, beautiful collection, and also an amazing example of why reading whole books of poetry rather than just excerpts is so important. Each of these poems are amazing individually, but they compound to something narrative, choral, and cathartic.
Lucky Wreck by Ada Limón
It was in one of these poems that I learned that if I have no idea what a poem is about, I should pay better attention to the title. Sometimes the poems are several pages long. Sometimes they’re only four lines. The voice is sometimes conversational and quirky. There’s a line where she says, “Gilbert from Anne of Green Gables, the movie/is entirely responsible for why I say sorry/like a Canadian” which is so funny because I do the same thing.
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
Just read it, bring tissues, thank me later. Class dismissed