In defense of poetry
Courtney Phelan | Thursday, February 11, 2016
Our society has a general disdain for poetry. Poetry just isn’t “cool.” Some people find it boring; others dorky; still others are haunted by memories of teacher who picked apart every single word of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” insisting it was an allegorical re-telling of the deaths of Romanov family or some other baloney. There might be some people who actually enjoy poetry, but they lurk in the shadows of academia or excessive quirkiness, or are represented as scorned nerds in rom-coms.
But poetry isn’t confined to high school literature classes or eulogies. Poetry is a living, ever-evolving thing that doesn’t require a Ph.D. to enjoy.
No two poems are exactly alike, and thus, I can’t say why exactly poetry is written. But there are certain themes people always come back to: religion, nature, disillusionment with the status quo, romantic love, brotherly love and unrequited love. Things that people come back to time and again. Poems written 600 years ago in Germany can be shockingly relevant to 21st century America.
In this day and age, you don’t even have to buy a poetry anthology to read good poems. PoetryFoundation.org is a wonderful website with thousands of poems, details about the author and style that can help explain any questions you have, and occasional audio recordings. They have a poem of the day and audio poem of the day that you could start with. Don’t get discouraged if something don’t make sense — I told everyone in a 400-level English class the other day that I had no idea what something meant, and most people, including the professor, nodded in agreement. Some poets, like E. E. Cummings or William Shakespeare, can seem hard to get through.
I don’t want you getting confused or discouraged, my fledgling poets. Try reading some Robert Frost or Maya Angelou at first. Read the poem aloud. Feel free to stop reading and pick it back up later. And remember, you don’t have to tie down poems to a chair and beat them with a rubber hose, trying to extract a deeper meaning like you did in high school literature class. Some of my favorite poems are my favorites just because they sound nice to my ears — “Ozymandias” by Percy Shelley — or because I find them cute and romantic, like “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love” by Christopher Marlowe. In the world outside of upper-level literature classes, it’s okay to like a poem because you just like it.
Of course, many poems do have deeper meanings that can be explored and elaborated on for a lifetime. You can spend time writing all over poems, determining rhyme scheme and meter and interpreting them, looking up double meanings of words and re-reading the poem with a different idea in mind. Poets don’t write complex pieces to torture their readers. In fact, some poets don’t write poems to be read at all.
For some, writing a poem is like keeping a journal. Taking the thoughts from the back of your mind, selecting the words that best fit what you’re thinking and organizing them in some coherent manner forces you to reflect on them.
A dear friend of mine from high school, Cole Downey, who is currently attending Monmouth College in Monmouth, Ill., writes and performs slam poetry. I called him recently and asked why he does it. In between ordering a veggie sandwich for his lunch, he told me,
“Writing it out helps me understand my opinion on either a personal situation or current event. All your stereotypical emotion [stuff], combined with a bit of politics.”
I think slam poetry, or poetry that is written to be performed aloud, with emotion and style, is my biggest reason why poetry shouldn’t be considered “lame,” or “archaic.” Some slam poems blur the lines between poetry and hip-hop so severely that you can hear a drum kit in your head. Search “Baby Pictures” by Adrienne Novy or “Knock Knock” by Daniel Beaty on YouTube to see for yourself. Poetry is cool.
I recently attended a reading of Godwit, a collection of poems by Saint Marys’ own Sister Eva Hooker. Sister Eva interspersed her poems with information about the format, anecdotes about what inspired her to write certain poems, and occasional jokes. What struck me in particular about Sister Eva’s reading wasn’t just how good her poems were, but how happy she was about them. She told us all at the beginning of her reading that she was overjoyed to finally hold her own book of her own poems in her hands. Watching someone achieve and share her life’s goal? Now that’s cool.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.