High school readings of Beowulf ruined poetry for many people. It went went something like this: Shakespeare, Beowulf, a close reading of The Road Less Traveled for SAT practice, and then poetry was essentially banished to a single bookshelf on the upper level of Barnes & Noble for all eternity.
I am a poetry reader, but it wasn’t always that way. I didn’t like the formulaic rhymes, I hated learning stuffy terms, I thought Shakespeare was best understood through Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo circa 1996. I had all the typical angst that comes with being 15 years old and vaguely obnoxious.
But, as with most things in high school, a cute boy changed things. He invited me to attend our school’s poetry club. Although this didn’t result in the outcome I’d hoped for (instant marriage proposal), I was surprised to learn that I loved poetry. Students would go up and read either pieces they’d written themselves or selections from their favorite poets.
This was where I discovered the wonderful raunchiness of Charles Bukowski, Sexton’s feminist stream of consciousness and even rekindled my love of Shel Silverstein (hey! I’d actually loved poetry once upon a time!). It was also where I learned that poetry was not just about strict meter and boring analysis: I could enjoy Bob Dylan from the lens of poetry and relish in the pure fun of hearing a spoken word slam. By senior year, I was president of the club.
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I am by no means a poetry expert. I assume most people don’t read poetry because they find it intimidating or boring. Unlike fiction, poetry simply doesn’t make the cut on the New York Times bestseller lists, and the average person off the street probably couldn’t list the top five poets working today. It is not an art form that’s at the forefront of our culture.
Here’s how I tackle the beast: I read one poet at a time. I quite frankly don’t know enough personal history about most poets to select one collection over another, so I grab the poet’s collected works. This serves a few purposes.
First, it appeals to my lazy side so that I don’t have to research someone extensively before I know which acclaimed work to buy first. Second, reading a poet’s work in its entirety allows you to see the changes and progression of a poet over their career. And last, it lets me decide the poems and collections I like best, without the influence of what’s been societally dictated as “best.”
Most nights, I read before bed. On the evenings when my novel seems overwhelming (here’s looking at you, J. Joyce), or I simply don’t have enough time to read an entire 60-page chapter, I turn to my book of poetry.
I am always reading one book of fiction and one book of poetry simultaneously. I can read one poem or 20 and immerse myself in a different kind literary world. From Billy Collins to Sylvia Plath to Langston Hughes, there are simply too many good poets to leave unread.
To err is human, to read poetry, divine.
Do you read poetry? Why or why not?
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