Why I love poets

Hello everyone,

Photo by Theresa Barker.

Every week I go to an appointment where they put out The New Yorker in the waiting area, among other magazines like O and The Atlantic, and every week I pick up the latest New Yorker and glance through it. Of course I read the cartoons! – but I also look for the poetry. I admit some of it is not to my taste, but that’s what poetry is about; it’s not all to one’s taste. A lot of it is not. But that’s part of what poetry is. It is a very personal experience, it is reading lines or words or phrases that either pull you into a different landscape or atmosphere, or they do not.

For a long time earlier in my life I thought something was wrong with me, that I wasn’t getting poetry correctly. If I encountered a poem I didn’t understand, I thought I wasn’t smart enough to puzzle it out. However, a few years back, during my MFA program in a master class on poetry, we had a session that changed my life. The professor asked us to read five poems she assigned in advance, and to bring in a list of those poems in order of favorite to least favorite. When we came into the classroom we brought our lists, and the professor made a big chart on the white board, with the names of the poems running down the left side, and our names across the top. In each column under our name she put the order of preference for each poem according to the list we brought in.

Guess what? Do you think that there was a consensus on which poems were “the best,” and which were “the worst”? In other words, did our lists look similar when we put them on the white board?

As you’ve probably guessed, they did not. In fact, there was a wide variation among which poems were “the favorite,” and which were “the least favorite.” In fact, it was almost an even distribution among all the poems, of most- to least-favorite status. Poems that one person hated were the favorite of another. I was shocked. And I was relieved.

Photo by Theresa Barker.

My takeaway was this: it’s completely okay to like a poem just because you like it. It’s also completely okay NOT to like a poem if you do not. This was a huge demonstration that understanding or preference for a particular poem is not a reflection of one’s intelligence or how smart one is. It is just that – understanding or preference of a poem because of what the poem is to YOU, and what it evokes or suggests or reminds you of when you read it.

This is not to say we shouldn’t try to understand poems that are hard at first try. I’m not suggesting all poems should be “easy.” What I want to express is, like art, it’s perfectly okay to enjoy a poem you like, and it’s okay to pass on poems that don’t appeal to you. What I look for in a poem, even if I don’t enjoy it very much, is a sequence of words, or a phrase, that I have never seen before, or that strikes me as unusual, or that makes me think of something else creative.

I really liked a poem from a recent New Yorker, Brenda Shaughnessey’s “Gift Planet.” I like the start of it:

My six-year-old said, “I don’t know time.” She already knows it’s unknowable. Let it be always a stranger she walks wide around.

Gosh, can you imagine that? Time is “unknowable.” Let time be a stranger that her daughter gives a wide berth to, something not allowed to dominate, to dictate, to determine the course of your life. Fun!

Why do I love poets? Last week at my writing conference I had the chance to hear recent work from two poet-colleagues and friends who are poets. And once again I felt drawn to, and transported, by the loveliness of their work. Not that their poems were all about flowers or gardens or the sunrise, not at all. But their language, their phrasing, their word choices really spoke to me, and when I heard them read their work I felt uplifted. I know that’s an overused word. I felt touched and connected and better than before I heard their work.

As you know, I like to start my daily routine writing exercise with a line from a Poem of the Day, and I have a very short piece I wrote using the first lines of a Robert Frost poem, “Fragmentary Blue” (what a great title, huh?). The opening of Frost’s poem goes,

Why make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,

I wrote this piece, “Blink,” in recollection of my recent visit to Phoenix, Arizona, and on the heels of a lovely visit with poet-colleague and blogger-friend Luanne Castle.

Blink

Her eyes a fragmentary blue. She blinked, blinked, blinked again and the hills turned to valleys, the valleys to rivers, the rivers to lake beds. She blinked, blinked, blinked again and the stars fell to earth, the hills behind the mountains became the beyond. She blinked, blinked, blinked again and you could see eternity in the bowl of the desert, blue band along the rim of mountains, pink above, just as the sun rises over the turning earth, to the east, east, east, and every hopeful, ever the optimist, ever the punching declaiming sun to rule and to rune the desert earth. Petroglyphs sing the messages of the old ones. Here, here, here, the eyes blink and the earth sinks and the sun is evermore.

Take care and good writing,

Theresa

17 thoughts on “Why I love poets

    1. Oh! I’m so glad to hear you liked this piece. I was thinking of you when I selected it, and even though it’s a sort of “tone poem”-style piece, not really fiction, I loved to be able to share it with a readership instead of it languishing in my computer files.

      “Fragmentary blue.” Isn’t that an amazing phrase? Good old Frost. hah!

      … and reading your comment made me realize there’s a lot of visual in my piece, which corresponds with your work of visual art. Such a fun connection.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I have had similar experiences with poetry, Theresa. For the longest time I could not figure out why I could not understand certain poems, while others turned out to be like revelations to me. That was a very good way of your professor to explore the likes and dislikes for various poems with you. Best wishes! Peter

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! “It is just that – understanding or preference of a poem because of what the poem is to YOU, and what it evokes or suggests or reminds you of when you read it.” Very true. Sometimes I write poems that I end up not liking myself. It is a very bizarre experience for me. Sometimes, although very few times, I go back an read a poem I have written and think to myself, “What the heck was I thinking. So there you go. But I must agree that is also why I love poets.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Melba! Thank you for your thoughtful message! I think that’s so interesting – “Sometimes I write poems that I end up not liking myself.” That is so cool to think about, that you are making your art in a way that isn’t contrived, it’s just expression. Very interesting. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. We enjoy the way you express thoughts Theresa and how they allow us to visualize what it is you are presenting…such a wonderful gift. We smiled because the New Yorker is a magazine we grew up on and the cartoons were always thought provoking. The poem by Brenda Shaughnessy was a beautiful visual. The poem by Frost brought us both back to our days in college and his works were always ones used to show the how to of poetry. Its easy to see why he won the Pulitzer Prize 4 different times.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, those New Yorker cartoons are always fun. There are still some issues in which the cartoons are enigmatic. But oh well! I’m glad you enjoyed the Shaughnessy poem, and of course Frost is a favorite. 🙂 Have a great week, Tom & Audrey!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow, Theresa, how cool is that?!!!! LOVE!
    So interesting how you write about poetry responses being unique to the individual because that is EXACTLY how I used to teach poetry and, in fact, in my children’s lit courses I used to really try to emphasize that to the future elementary and secondary teachers in my classes! It seems as if so few people talk/write about this aspect of poetry, but it’s so important, especially if we want to bring new people to poetry.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Totally right, Luanne! When I taught seniors at a residence, same thing, poetry scared them off. I used to bring in poems that were very ordinary-seeming, thinking it would help them to feel less daunted. But they were still unenthusiastic. Finally one day I happened to bring a poem with a wonderful natural imagery in it, and suddenly they were excited. I thought, aha! I had been trying to make poetry seem less mysterious, but actually they responded to the beauty in poetry instead. 🙂

      And, I hope you recognized your own Phoenix valley there in my excerpt. Thank you for bringing inspiring and fun poetry when we met!

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