April is National Poetry Month, and here’s why I bother

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O P I N I O N


April is National Poetry Month, and let’s be frank: Does anyone really give a shit?

Many of the masses raised in American schools developed an aversion to poetry long ago, largely due to the way it was taught. For decades, students in middle and high schools would choose a root canal before being subjected to the poetry unit.

And make no mistake—as former Poet-Laureate Ted Kooser points out—this falls squarely in the laps of two parties: the Modernists, who made poetry so arcane, elitist and inaccessible that only academics could love it; and English teachers who continued to present poetry to their classes as riddles to be solved, and they were the gatekeepers to the meaning[1].

If reading something makes a person feel dumb or intellectually inferior then they’re going to avoid reading it. That’s pretty basic psychology.

William Wordsworth in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” stressed the importance of poetry speaking to the common man, not an insular community of snobs.

Now here’s my full disclosure: I’ve published four books of poetry, which I guarantee you haven’t read. Do you want to know how I know that you haven’t read my books? Because no one reads books of poetry except for microscopic subset of the population.

Then why bother to write them in the first place, you might ask?

I don’t have a great answer, but I can try to explain.

As an adolescent—and a general numbnut—I discovered that writing down the things I felt made me feel better. Poetry, for me, started as a catharsis, like it does for many poets. Those early poems were cringe-worthy and clichéd with horribly forced rhyme schemes, but they still mattered to me. They helped me make sense of my world.

Then I started actually reading poets that seemed to speak to me. I started with The Beats (Ginsberg and Corso and Kerouac and Snyder) then I stumbled into Charles Bukowski as an undergraduate.

Suddenly, poetry seemed so simple. I just needed to get drunk and write down my cynical and indignant youthful rage using line breaks.

That was certainly ill-informed.

But Bukowski taught me that poetry didn’t have to be a riddle.

Poetry, in fact, is exactly what the British Romantic poet Samuel Coleridge called “the best words in the best order,” and James Dickey said was “the greatest goddamn thing there ever was in the whole universe.” It’s our language at its best, saying things that can’t otherwise be said outside of the context of a poem; it communicates those the inner-mysteries of the human experience.

In short, poetry—at its best—shows us what it means to be human[2].

April is National Poetry Month, and I’m attempting the challenge of writing one poem a day for the next month. Of those 30 poems, 29 of them will suck and no one will ever see the drafts.

But maybe one of them might put my own best words in their best order.

And maybe someone will someday read it and feel something other than frustration or aversion. In short, maybe they’ll give a shit.

____

[1] In fairness, I personally know a number of dedicated English teachers who do dynamic things with poetry in their classes. However—and it was my personal experience—at 16 years old, I wasn’t exactly identifying with Percy Shelley’s “Ode to a Skylark.”

[2] Admittedly, my English teacher rant here is a little over the top. If you press your ear to the screen and listen really closely, you can hear my wife rolling her eyes.