Every so often, I get a bee in my bonnet about poetry. When we homeschooled, we read and sometimes memorized poems. We’ve since moved on to other kinds of schooling, and it’s been a good choice, overall. But to my everlasting chagrin, so many teachers teach my kids that poetry is a kind of catch basin for emotion.
Prose, they learn, is for when you have orderly thoughts to express with precision; but poetry is the place to open the floodgates and wallow, and nobody can possibly say you’re doing it wrong, because there are no rules.
And this is true, as long as the poetry is utter garbage.
This utter garbage approach to poetry accounts for why so many young people love to write but hate to read poetry. Wallowing feels great when you’re in the middle of it (when you’re in the mood), but no healthy person likes to watch someone else flail around aimlessly in the muck.
A good poem works in the opposite way: The writer does all the work, and the reader — well, the reader has to do some work, too, but if he’s willing, he’ll be rewarded with something of great and lasting value. Have you seen an uncut, unpolished diamond? It doesn’t look like much. Most of its beauty is in its potential, and it’s not until it’s carefully, skillfully cut and polished that it sparkles and reflects the light.
The same is true with the ideas and passions that animate poetry. In a formless stream-of-consciousness poem that’s allowed to spill itself thoughtlessly onto the page, the ideas and passions that animate it may be present, but they won’t do much for the reader until they’re brought out by skillful, time-consuming wordsmithing and ruthless editing.
Of course, you can make perhaps the opposite mistake, and approach a well-crafted poem the way a dealer approaches a precious jewel, and think only of what it can deliver. This is what Billy Collins protested against in his poem, Introduction to Poetry. He pleads with his students to listen to, to live with a poem; to encounter it on its own terms, to experience it. To hear the sounds it makes and be open to the various things they might suggest.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
People who teach poetry this way should be sent to work in the salt mines. They can meet up with the wallowers once a week and think about what they’ve done wrong.
Anyway, as I mentioned, every once in a while I get a bee in my bonnet and start printing out poetry and tacking it up on the walls of my house. I pin up a new batch every year or so, and once they become tattered enough, I tell myself they’ve probably been read by somebody. I’m far too tired and busy to lead any seminars, but at least it’s something.
The theory is that it’s possible to ruin a wonderful poem by torturing a message or moral out of it, and it’s possible to miss out on the power and import of a good poem by skimming over the surface of it and not stopping to consider why it’s made the way it is; but at least with the second error, you’ve had a moment of pleasure. And if the thing is hanging around long enough and the poem is good enough, you’re bound to let it inside your head, where it may colonize.