Dear Poets: Please Read Poetry

4 min read

Lately I’ve felt the need to be in closer touch with poetry. The best way I know to achieve my goal is to read a lot of poetry–and to reread Edward Hirsch‘s excellent How To Read A Poem (And Fall In Love With Poetry). You’ll get more out of the book if you know a bit about poetry; Hirsch is a scholar and assumes you can match his stride in his romp through centuries of verse. But How To Read A Poem is written is a style that’s accessible for novices, too, and his enthusiasm for poetry will make you wish you’d read more.

The idea of reading poetry reminded me of a minor kerfuffle I stoked somewhere on Open Salon a year or so ago. Someone–I forget whom–claimed to love writing poetry, but hated reading it. I objected. I claimed that to presume one could write excellent poetry without any knowledge of poetry was arrogant–at best, misguided. I mentioned that I believed this was one of the things that was wrong with most of the poetry I read online: its writers never read any poetry.

I’m on record as believing that, when novices praise the writing of novices, they’re not really praising the writing so much as the person or the sentiment; sometimes, “that’s an amazing poem” really means “I like you and I feel your pain.” The poem itself might be pedestrian or worse. But author who’s expressed him- or herself through sloppy blank verse or unmetered rhyme receives validation.

That’s all well and good–unless you pay too much attention to the praise and think that just because people have flattered your

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

poetry, you’re a champion poet. You’re actually more like a kid who dumps flour and eggs into a bowl and calls it a cake: all the ingredients are there, but the art and science of baking have been completely ignored.

“Every poet learns to write by imitation,” writes ex-Poet Laureate Ted Kooser in his excellent book The Poetry Home Repair Manual, “just as every painter learns to paint by looking at paintings.” I’m afraid Mr. Kooser is living in the past. Today, the fact that everyone can have a blog means that everyone can be a self-published poet regardless of whether he or she has ever laid eyes on another poem.

Unfortunately, most people don’t read much poetry. Most people “don’t have time” for poetry. Lots of people think “great” poetry must be obtuse or opaque, and they don’t have the patience to sort out the meaning.

I think that’s a shame. Most poems don’t take much time to read, and reading poetry can make your life better. Poetry can connect you with deep wells of emotion, can help you understand the world and your place in it more clearly. Poetry can put you in touch with your love, your sorrow, your longing, your joy, your fear. Your mortality.

It should go without saying that reading poetry can also make you a better poet. Reading poetry puts you in a poetic frame of mind. Even if the “meaning” of the poetry you’re reading is not immediately clear, you catch the rhythm, the flow. Your mind catches on the words. Your brain may resist, but your soul gets it.

“You say you don’t understand Dylan Thomas?” writes the great Ray Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing. “Yes, but your ganglion does, and your secret wits, and all your unborn children. Read him, as you can read a horse with your eyes, set free and charging over an endless green meadow on a windy day.”

Need poetry that’s more accessible? Read Ted Kooser. Read Billy Collins. Read the delightful poetry of John Updike. And, for goodness’ sake, read Shakespeare and Keats and Shelley, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, James Wright, e.e. cummings, Elizabeth Bishop, Delmore Schwartz, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Larkin, the excellent Indiana poet Jared Carter. I have a great affinity for Polish post-war poets, including Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska. Pick up your Bible and read Song of Songs. There’s so much amazing poetry in the world that you’ll never run out of great things to read.

And then–please–write poetry. I’ll let Ted Kooser have the last word:

“Considering the ways in which so many of us waste our time, what would be wrong with a world in which everybody were writing poems? After all, there’s a significant service to humanity in spending time doing no harm. While you’re writing your poem, there’s one less scoundrel in the world. And I’d like a world, wouldn’t you, in which people actually took time to think about what they were saying? It would be, I’m certain, a more peaceful, more reasonable place. I don’t think there could ever be too many poets. By writing poetry, even those poems that fail and fail miserably, we honor and affirm life. We say ‘We loved the earth but could not stay.’”