When it comes to poetry, here are some common things people say:
— It’s old (or dead).
— It’s nerdy.
— It’s elitist, snobbish, stuck-up, or exclusive.
— It’s boring.
— It’s hard.
— We had to learn it in school, but it never really interested me.
For many, these objections turn into downright hatred. People actively avoid poetry. It’s not the in-laws or goat cheese, but it causes discomfort, and sometimes just hearing the word makes people tense up. I mean, c’mon, physiologically repulsive?!
If hating poetry is easy (or at least easier than loving it), I wanted to know why. And then I wanted to know what we could do to make poetry more lovable. Here are five main reasons (and corresponding suggestions) I can identify—and one big, hairy commonality between them.
1. No one tells you why it’s taught.
“It’s just culturally important. There’s history to miss if you don’t learn it.” Yet this reasoning shortchanges a student’s experience from the beginning. If the foundation for learning poetry is not thought of as critical, but largely superfluous—a “nice to have”—is there really any wonder why students feel it’s permissible to just pass and move on?
We are a meaning-making species. Ever since we invented language, we invented something fun/awesome to do with it. I think we should provide students a more robust introduction and foundation for why we learn poetry in the first place, emphasizing how intrinsic the processes for poetry are to who and what we are and to how we think and live.
2. What is taught: we beat the dead horse.
The classics are classics because they resonate universally. Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is lovely because it puts so quietly the raucous difficulty of having to come to terms with competing desires, choose between unknowns, and reconcile our limitations. It’s good, and fortunate, that we study such classics.
But too often, what is taught is over-taught, and thus under-taught. We’ve become complacent with choices in curriculum. We’ve beaten the classics to death and beyond, torturing the life right out of the lines. I believe we should teach classics, but question why we do—question the poems themselves, treating them as living arguments. We should also support students as they encounter these poems, and bolster their growing knowledge with poetry that is new and relevant to their stage in life. (i.e. Shake up Shakespeare with some Siken!
3. We beat the dead horse proudly, with large words.
When people intentionally inflate their language about a poet’s language, it gamefies and trivializes the process of understanding. This jeopardizes connection with the poem, robbing a reader’s enjoyment of its discussion. All too often, conversation in academic settings comes off as performance, in a “this is supposed to be hard” manner. But this erects barriers between those in conversation, further propagating the pernicious stereotype that poetry is stuck-up and elitist. With a default discourse mode like this, it’s no wonder why the mere thought of poetry induces anxiety!
I think we should shatter the decorum enshrining traditional poetry discourse. Teachers should set the tone in the classroom, talking about poetry in both technically-accurate and straightforward terms. In turn, teachers should value and work with all varieties and levels of student input. People understand poems differently. That’s so beautiful, and we would all do well to learn from each other. We can accomplish this by focusing on the contribution of the comment rather than on how it sounds—and by questioning, and respectfully steering conversation away from, obfuscating terminology or explanations.
4. How it’s taught: you’re either right or wrong.
When poetry is taught as if there are right and wrong ways to interpret or understand a given line, metaphor, or message, we unintentionally yet effectively shut down conversation. It is precisely in the gray areas where students can begin to have a critical opinion and develop aesthetic sensibilities.
As with anything, a sense of ownership is crucial for developing and sustaining deep interest. Teachers have a large role to play in making this possible to begin with, by making a poem as inviting as possible. (It’s very difficult to like John Donne, for instance, if you aren’t provided some window into his world.)
If a student earnestly tried but the poem just isn’t “clicking,” the teacher should challenge the student to push further—a “which-parts-make-you-think-that?” response instead of a “no-that’s-not-right” one. Furthermore, instead of penalizing someone for disliking a poem, we should celebrate; informed debate is the foundation for progress and the food for thinking, expanding minds.
5. Yet… impossible expectations.
Ben Lerner writes in, “The Hatred of Poetry,”
“Poetry” denotes an impossible demand. This is one underlying reason why poetry is so often met with contempt rather than mere indifference and why it is periodically denounced as opposed to simply dismissed: most of us carry at least a weak sense of a correlation between poetry and human possibility that cannot be realized by poems. The poet… is therefore both an embarrassment and an accusation.
When someone turns to poetry for the express reason of having it solve their problems or soothe their pain, they may very well be disappointed. Poetry might be a poor cure.
But it is a great salve. I love reading poetry precisely because it allows me to envision another’s way of thinking/feeling/being in the world. Much of the delight of reading poetry comes when I find similarities between the poet and me, when I find my weird, wonky perspective affirmed.
A possible mindset remediating embarrassment or accusation could be to look for points of connection to be surprised at, not for points of disconnection to be disappointed about. I certainly don’t punish the poem for failing to deliver, or think negatively of the poet when I don’t connect. (It’s not their personal fault they didn’t get me.) I just move on and read something else.
* * *
What do these five reasons have in common? Most of them involve poetry education. But on a deeper level, I believe all of them involve shame.
Like it or not, there’s a lot of shame in American culture surrounding poetry.
At the root of shame, per Brené Brown, is the feeling that you are not enough.
You don’t understand this poem or its distinct cultural relevance? You’re not good enough. You don’t understand a student’s perspective on this poem? Either that’s not a good student or you’re not a good educator. You’re not writing good poetry? You’re not good enough. You’re not finding good poetry? Poetry’s not good enough for you.
This thinking, however it manifests, is so insidious, so poisonous, for everyone. No one likes to talk about shame, though it’s universal. It makes perfect sense, then, why many people hate poetry; it literally surfaces feelings of shame. No wonder the physiological reactions!
And poems are not like math, where you can use rules and operations to pinpoint errors and evaluate answers. There is fear and risk involved, especially that one’s ignorance will be exposed. Students and teachers alike are afraid of making mistakes. We’re uncomfortable acknowledging, “I don’t know,” and then resolving to find out.
But when we close off conversations, when we keep our shame under tight internal wraps, we lose our vulnerability — and with it, the very source of the greatest things in life: empathy, joy, love, happiness, creativity, and innovation.
I find it ironic that poetry — this thing we have so much shame about — is an incredible way of combatting shame. In order to “do” poetry, we must remain open, vulnerable, and willing.
Poetry is the ultimate opening. When reading or teaching it: the way into a greater, richer conversation. When writing it: the opening of the possibility that you are good enough. The way of affirming, “My imperfect life, thoughts, and imagination are worth the effort of perfectly crafting into words. Worth immortalizing.” Poetry is the best way I know of to admit, “yeah, I’m pretty messed up, and that’s okay.” Even beautiful. So please no shame! No shame.
This post has been adapted from Rebecca Roach’s longer piece on Medium, which can be accessed here: https://medium.com/@rebeccaroach12/6-reasons-why-people-hate-poetry-6155a24be599#.11cjznuqx
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.
She has always loved art and being a creative rebel. She fell in love with poetry in second grade, to Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and “A Light in the Attic.” Though she studied music for most of her life (classical piano and cello), and graduated college with a degree in music history, during her junior year studying abroad at Oxford University, she decided to switch paths to study poetry.
Last year in an MFA program, she learned to love–and hate–poetry like never before. Through that experience, and through an introduction to open innovation, entrepreneurship, and the worlds of business, programming, and design, she stumbled upon a new direction: to leverage technology for the sake of helping poets thrive at what they do. She now envisions a world in which poetry is not a “creative opportunity,” but a way of life–and not just for poets, but for everyone.
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