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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Friday, April 21, 2023

April is National Poetry month, so before it’s over I think it’s worth a mention, mostly because it inspired me to pick up a poetry book.

I have never been much of a poetry fan but that has more to do with having high school teachers jam it into my ear holes than a lack of appreciation for it.

You have to wonder, though. People who become literature teachers, they have to love literature, right? You can’t spend years of your life going to school, reading and learning so you can impart literary wisdom on your students and not love your subject. Right?

I mean, I would never have become a math teacher.

So how is it that the extent of “teaching” poetry maxes out somewhere around making you memorize a poem and analyze the first stanza?

Memorize a poem.

You memorize the times tables. I’m not sure what the value is of memorizing a poem. I mean, maybe there is some but nobody ever explained it to me, and I’m not going to Google it at this stage.

I’ve memorized a bunch of poems, some because I had to and some just because I loved them, because I repeated them over and over and over, absorbing their meanings and nuances.

High school literature teachers do not impart this joy. The just impose their requirements.

But this isn’t a commentary on education. Fortunately for me I have parents who went with the whole “love of reading” thing.

My father bought me my first book of poetry. Edna St. Vincent Millay. We never had deep philosophical conversations about the meaning of her poems but he always nodded and smiled when I talked about them and said, “Good stuff.”

Which is the best way to feel about poetry, really.

I never branched out into obscure poetry or modern poetry. The kind I like is probably the stuff most people know. John Donne and Emily Dickinson. Robert Frost and Edgar Allen Poe.

Quoth the Raven… “Poetry should be fun and not a thing you memorize.”

I think poetry is true word art. And like art, it either speaks to you, or it doesn’t. You can talk all day about technical genius and the rhythm of verse and iambic pentameter and the alliteration of the refrain, but really what you want is to stand back and get a little tingly feeling as the words roll off each other.

You can say “rage against the dying of the light” a thousand times and I’ll get a chill after every one.

Like art, it means something to the artist. But meaning requires participation. For me it’s not enough to know what the poet intended. It’s more of a “nice to know.” What I like about poetry, what I find to be the most enjoyable poems, are the ones where you can imbue your own meaning into it. Or extract your own meaning from it. Or just let it flow through you.

I’m not a poet. Pretty obviously.

Let’s see. Poems I have memorized: For Whom The Bell Tolls. The first stanza of The Ballad of East and West, as a homework assignment some three decades ago. Jabberwocky, in its entirety because I love the way the words sound.

The Owl and the Pussycat because it has the word runcible in it.

Back in the day when you didn’t have internet and couldn’t look up things like runcible, your curiosity was only as fulfilled as your ability to get anything interesting out of your literature teachers.

Anyway, I sort of love and hate poetry. It can seem really pretentious sometimes. But that’s also a weird thing to say because think about it. You wouldn’t just say “I like fiction” and then expect to love Harry Potter and Walden the same way, right? It’s dumb to say you “like” poetry as some ethereal concept but that’s sort of how we’re taught to think of it.

This monolithic structure of Things To Be Analyzed.

I like fiction, too. But I really, really hated Naked Lunch even though it’s probably not cool to say that.

I recently bought myself a couple of poetry books on purpose. I picked up a tome of Edna St. Vincent Millay because she was my first love. I bought Sylvia Plath, which definitely requires some reference material, but I find her fascinating so I’m willing to go that distance.

And I got Emily Dickinson’s A Spicing of Birds, which is an illustrated compilation of her poems that relate to… guess what… birds.

For someone who likes words, poetry should be a no brainer. It’s all about playing with words and ideas, and putting things together in ways that maybe they were never intended.

Poetry breaks rules. Or maybe not so much breaks them, as never acknowledges that there were rules in the first place, least of all rules that a literature teacher taught.

Which I love.

You can make words up and mash them together and pull them apart. You can rhyme them or alliterate them or stagger and flow them. You can stop short in the middle of a thought or keep going as long as you want without a bit of care.

And at the end of the day it’s not about grammar or spelling or plot or character arcs but about the itching feeling you get when someone says “it tolls for thee.”

Photo: my recent poetry acquisition.