In Defense of Poetry

Yes, I know. National Poetry Month is over and you’ve had all of my terrible poetry you can handle. That’s fair. But this isn’t about my poetry, nor will I subject you to any more of it (at least not until next April). This is about poetry in general and how I think that for the general public, it doesn’t get a fair evaluation.

Obviously, there’s no harm if you don’t like poetry. It’s just that I don’t think people get a chance to like poetry.

Think about it. When are most people introduced to poetry? In school. Grade school, junior high, high school. And in that context, the agenda behind the introduction is to teach us the different kinds of poems and the various kinds of poetic devices, and the poetry we consume in the classroom is all for the purpose of learning these things. And that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with learning the parts of the body that you’re looking at. Even if you never use that knowledge beyond the classroom, you’re still developing critical thinking skills and developing those important neural pathways that you will (hopefully) use later.

But at no point are you taught to experience and enjoy poetry (I could make this same argument about literature and reading for enjoyment). Instead, you’re trying to parse the implied meanings of a poet whose been dead for a hundred years for a grade. You’re not asked to understand what that poem means to you or explain how it makes you feel or how you experience. Yes, I’m coming from a very “I don’t know art, but I know what I like” kind of place.

Here’s kind of what I mean.

When I was a sophomore in high school, my honors English class was studying poetry and one of our assignments was to submit a poem to a poetry/art contest. So this was for a grade as well as for glory. The contest had a theme, I can’t remember exactly what it was. Something about robots taking people’s jobs or some such shit. Anyway, when I submitted the first draft of my poem, my teacher returned it with the critique that it didn’t have enough poetic devices.

Even as a 15 year old know-nothing, I thought to myself, “That’s not how poetry works.” Emily Dickinson never looked at one of her poems and said, “Needs more devices” like she was spiking a punch. And I’m not comparing myself to Emily Dickinson at all. It’s well established that she was brilliant and I’m terrible. I’m just saying that I don’t think that’s the thought process behind crafting a poem. I would think there’s more focus of the utilization of the poetic devices to help convey the meaning and feeling of the poem, not the number of devices used. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe that’s why the greats are so great. They were carefully measuring the poetic devices that they put into their poems.

In my case, I capitalized the last line of the poem to satisfy my teacher’s poetic devices requirement and ended up winning second in both county and state.

Was it that capitalized line that pushed me onto the victory podium? Did the judges look at my poem and count the number of devices and decided I’d inserted a sufficient number of them to be worthy of a prize? I have no idea and I’ll never know. I don’t think I’ve capitalized an entire line in a poem since then, though. Maybe that’s why I’ve never won anything else.

I’ve always liked writing poetry even if I’m not very good at it and don’t use enough devices, but I wasn’t always fond of reading it. I liked some of it, but it seemed like the poetry I was supposed to read and like (much like the literature I was supposed to read and like) wasn’t my cup of tea and I struggled to get into it. I never gave up on reading it, but it took me a long time to finally find my groove. As it turns out, I like free verse best. It speaks to me, as it were. It also seems that I like current poets rather than poets of the past. José Olivarez, Britteney Black Rose Kapri, E’Mon Lauren, Aja Monet, and Kevin Coval are a few of the poets I’ve read recently and I dug their work.

Did I notice their use of poetic devices? Well, as a terrible poem writer always looking to learn how to be less terrible, yeah. I made note of things that they did that caught my attention. But mostly I read for the experience. Because for me, poetry is an experience. Is it supposed to be? I don’t know. That’s just how I prefer to process it. I just absorb the piece, the feeling, the emotion, the meaning and message, intentional and interpreted. I find the most enjoyment in poetry by letting the poem speak for itself.

What I’m saying is that I wasn’t ruined by learning the ins and outs of poetry, but I had to learn for myself how to enjoy it. I was never given that option when I was reading and writing for a grade. I guess you can’t score a good time. Which is a damn shame. Reading for enjoyment is a life skill.

And if after reading all of this you think you still wouldn’t or don’t like poetry, read Shel Silverstein.

If you still don’t like poetry after Where the Sidewalk Ends or A Light in the Attic, then yeah, you don’t like poetry.

The end.


6 thoughts on “In Defense of Poetry

  1. Funny, I don’t think of myself as a person who reads or enjoys poetry, but your mention of Shel Silverstein reminded me that I had a book in grade school called “Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls” a collection of poems for a young troublemaker like myself. I loved it so much, I memorized several – I’ve been able to retain at least two, possibly three, to this day. And in High School I tried to read all of Poe’s poetry. Poe’s respect for meter made me snobby about free verse, but having only Poe and a child’s poetry book under my belt, I had no basis for snobbery. The truth was, I just didn’t understand poetry – I think there were flaws in how it was taught, but I just didn’t have the patience for it, and I was a terrible student – I hardly ever read anything. As you might guess, I was much too interested in TV to set it aside for a book.

    What you describe about how this teacher attempted to make you a better (or more obedient?) poet reminds me of music theory. No one can make you an artist, but I suppose teachers strive to give you the tools to allow you to be the best artist you can be. Great musicians, as they say, don’t follow the rules of music, but they know them. They learn the rules, then throw them away.

    1. I think a lot of people don’t think of someone who enjoys poetry and then you mention Shel Silverstein and they’re like, “Oh yeah!” He’s a touchstone. I’ve read some of Poe’s poetry and I enjoyed it. I’m currently reading Robert Burns. I do like some meter and rhyme schemes, but free verse just hits me different. I don’t always understand poetry, but I learned how to enjoy it whether I understand it or not.

      Anyway, yes, it’s important for teachers to teach us the rules so we can know how to break them. I just wish they taught us to enjoy it all, too.

  2. It’s interesting that your teacher told you your poem didn’t have enough poetic devices. I mean, I get that those are important things to learn about, but it seems like it can become too much of a focus sometimes. Like you said, it’s not about just checking off boxes and making sure you’ve used a certain number of devices. It’s about using them in a way that helps convey the meaning and feeling of the poem.

    And hey, if someone still doesn’t like poetry after reading Shel Silverstein, then I don’t know what to tell them! Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic are classics for a reason.

    1. I agree completely. If she’d phrased it the way you just did…that I should try to use more poetic devices to enhance the feeling and meaning…maybe I would have taken it differently. As it was, I just took her criticism as meeting the requirements of the assignment and nothing more. I’m glad I was able to move past that and even if my poetry is (proudly) terrible, I enjoy writing it and reading it in general.

      Shel Silverstein speaks to the masses.

  3. I’ve always quite liked poetry, but the first time I remember I REALLY enjoyed it was when we were doing ‘war poetry’ at school at about 15/16 years of age. Maybe it was because the subject matter was so important, or maybe it was more of a macho tye of poetry, but it really got me into the whole thing. I’ve been enjoying poetry more this last year too. Anyway, nice interesting read Kiki…

    1. Thank you. I’m glad you were able to find some poetry that you enjoyed when you were young. I think that helps so much to making poetry more accessible.

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