I don’t know about you, but when I think of poetry, the images that come to mind are dim-lit, hazy coffee shops at night, berets, scarves, tight jeans, cigarettes, and snapping fingers. Because poets are too cool to clap.
I think of poets and the loftier than thou aroma that lingers in their speech, often more so than other types of writers. You read one of their poems or listen to it, and it confuses you. You just don’t get it, they say, eyes rolled to the heavens in disgust. It’s spoken, it’s published, it’s good. And you’re the one left feeling like an idiot.
That kind of poetry, that kind of poet, is overrated. And it’s because of this perception that poetry is also underappreciated by the general public. You want to be a poet? Well, dig yourself in for a good day job to help support your writing, because there’s hardly any money in it.
But what does that matter? Poetry is a beautiful medium, so vast it’s like every poem ever written is unique with its own fingerprint just like us. That’s why it can be so overwhelming, and that’s why it’s okay if you read a poem that you just don’t get. You’re not somehow less if you can’t make sense of a poem or a dozen poems or a hundred poems. You don’t have to read the same poem over and over in an attempt to understand it if you don’t want to.
Part of the beauty of poetry is that the reader becomes the interpreter of the piece, more so than any other genre. An author of fiction tells a story, and ten people will read the same story, but when a poet writes a poem, she can invite ten readers to read ten different poems. It multiplies further when the readers decide to read the poem two different ways. No wonder students in literature classes still bring new insight to poems that were written centuries ago.
But the idea some poets have presented to the world that their single poem will change your life, or you’re too thick to let it, is overrated. The chances of a poem changing your life are pretty slim. But then, think of the Psalms. Think of Shakespeare. Poetry can influence you in ways you never expected. Personally, only a handful of poems have stuck with me through the years. Two are villanelles, my favorite kind of poem. They may not have changed my life in an earth shattering way, but they did help me see things in a different way at that time.
A great thing about poetry is that it can have an agenda, or it doesn’t have to. It’s about images and sounds and exposing your heart. It can be fleeting, poignant, reflective. It’s every day, it’s every emotion, it’s beyond emotion. And anyone can read it. Anyone can write it.
For me, poetry is like driving in a car and watching glimpses of the world go by. It’s an invitation to share in the human experience. I write it to focus my strong emotions into something tangible. And that doesn’t mean those poems are good or publishable. Sometimes the most impactful poetry is the kind you write but don’t share.
There are bad poems out there, just like there’s bad fiction, just like there’s bad nonfiction. And there are some poets who do their medium no favors by claiming their poetry is above reproach. They turn people off when they should be inviting them to give it a try. The same goes for other genres. But if you work past the bad, you’ll begin to appreciate poetry and all the variety it can offer. I hope you give it a try.
By Tracy Buckler