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The death and resurrection of poetry

| Tuesday, September 11, 2018

When I was a freshman in high school, my English teacher killed poetry for me. Just as Romeo poisoned himself and Juliet stabbed herself with a dagger, my teacher slaughtered the art form as she stressed the importance of stressed syllables in iambic pentameter. The following few years were filled with agony as teachers asked me to look for meaning in these odd arrangements of words known as poems.

One summer, I took a creative writing class with a professor who put in the effort to get through to students like me — those of us who absolutely knew we didn’t like poetry. In between the familiar — and admittedly enjoyable — works of Seamus Heaney and Lewis Carroll, the professor played a recording that would change the course of the next several years of my life.

Words have the most effect on me when spoken in the voice of their writer. Perhaps that’s why when I heard Matthew Dickman’s “Slow Dance” read by the author himself, I reconsidered my self-proclaimed hatred of poetry. I listened to the recording, again and again, simply because it made sense to me. As the summer progressed, I added hundreds of views to that YouTube video. Any chance I had, I reached for the aux cord in my friends’ cars, disgruntling them with the sound of speech instead of song playing through the speakers. My parents were pleased to see how enthused I was about things I had learned in that summer class, but soon even they grew tired of my insistence on reading obscure contemporary poems aloud whenever someone was present to listen.

When I went back to school the following year, I had the catharsis of having my freshman English teacher for an elective. While she didn’t know I had spent the preceding few years silently stewing about her Shakespearean unit, I still felt the need to apologize. She assigned a journal entry about what we wanted our lives to produce, and I turned in a poem entitled “Peace and Poetry.” It wasn’t exactly an apology, and it was certainly redundant, but it released the emotions toward poetry I’d been harboring.

As an English major, I find myself faced with poetry far more often than my younger self would have been pleased to know. I’m still not a fan of Shakespeare, but contemporary poetry, such as that of Matthew Dickman, is something I turn to when the density of my assigned readings becomes draining (pretty often).

When she spoke at Saint Mary’s last week, United States Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith addressed an aspect of poetry I wish I’d heard my freshman year of high school — it’s not about hidden meaning. When she said poets don’t look to convey their messages in the most complex way possible, I couldn’t help but laugh.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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