If you're angsty.
Because you want details, not narrative.
Because you want to sound smarter than you are.
Because you want to, no one can make you.
You're Charles Dickens.
These are some of the answers my high school students offered me when I asked why they think people read poetry. All but the last make sense to me.
But the question lingers. Why do we read poems?
As a teacher, I do play a role in why people read poetry. Each year, I require at least a few dozen teenagers to read the poems I assign them. Thankfully, they tolerate it, and because I teach Louise Gluck's Meadowlands and new poets such as Anders Carlson-Wee, some even come to love it.
I read poetry for many reasons, and more than a few times because I was required to by one teacher or another. But I also read to feel. I read to have my feeling spoken back to me. I read because I hope to see what better is, that maybe it will rub off on me, click and snap something into place. I read because, sometimes more than anything, I just love words. The right words. In the right order.
And as you read this, no doubt you list the reasons I have forgotten, overlooked. It is hard to think of a wrong reason to read a poem. But some reasons, I think, are neglected.
So I wanted to offer one book and one reason.
The book is Winter Inlet by Hastings Hensel. I first stumbled across a poem from the collection as I tapped my way through the internet, interested in who had won the 2014 Unicorn Press First Book Award. I googled. I clicked. I read "Winter Inlet Arrangement." I loved it.
That weekend, at AWP, I found the book, bought it, and devoured it.
When I first sat down to read Winter Inlet, I am not sure I can say I knew why, beyond my love of that poem and, to be honest, the beautiful cover. I am a sucker for beautiful covers.
And as I read, the reason became clear: I wanted to be there.
I live in Atlanta, and here, May is summer. Full summer. Summer and pollen and thunderstorms and sweat. Everything is green and bright, chlorinated and laden with sugar. I am also a new mother, and more often than not my daughter is connected to me: reaching out to me, pressing her cheek against mine, prying my teeth open and running her small fingers along my gums.
I want these days, steeped in sidewalk chalk and sunscreen. I fought hard for them. But I also grew up spending my summers in Buzzard's Bay, MA, swimming in a cold Atlantic full of seaweed, quahogs, nameless minnows. For some small piece of time, even now, I want that back, to be alone on a beach, rugged and windblown.
Winter Inlet is exactly that. In "The Case Again for Solipsism," Hensel shows me his beach: "Mostly it's just the broken husks of crabs,/ the waves chomping at the bit–nothing// to forget come spring, when rare clusters/ of starfish wash up again like old dreams." The poems are filled with the "fretwork" of fish bones under a filet knife, the "viscous discs" of men-of-war jellyfish. The Atlantic has a "wind-stitched surface," the school of mullet underneath are "uncritical and silvery."
I want to be there. When I read his poems, I am.
We can read poetry to travel. I would argue we remember that with fiction. Even better with television. For a time in my twenties, I lived and studied in Oxford. I still miss it, and when the nostalgia grows too strong, I turn on Inspector Lewis, pick a rain-filled British murder mystery from my bedside table. We allow ourselves to live in the worlds of prose; why not poetry?
True, I have never been to that inlet. I have never shucked an oyster. It wasn't my own memories that drove me through the collection with a concentration and dedication I rarely find as a mom to an energetic toddler. So I can't claim nostalgia. Sure, I know other inlets. But I want to be on the shore he distills onto each page.
So in the end, maybe I am not being completely honest. I read to travel. But this inlet is tailored to me with its "sleek/ spindrift-pitched rock jetty." It isn't just beautiful; it is the beautiful I want.
Are there other reasons to read Winter Inlet? Oh, without a doubt. The language, the buried rhymes, the fragile pain and joy of marriage rendered in the images of daily life. All of that is there for you. But here is my challenge: the next time you reach for a book or a poem, ask yourself, "Where do I want to be?" Stanza after all, comes from the Italian for room. The poems in Winter Inlet are more than a room, more than a house, they are "a land of rain, of ascent," and for a little while they take me with them.
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.
Maggie Blake Bailey has poems published or forthcoming in The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume V: Georgia, Tar River, Tinderbox, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Bury the Lede, is available now from Finishing Line Press. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and daughter. For more work, please visit www.maggieblakebailey.com.
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