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4 Lies People Believe About Poetry

Guest Blogger: T.J. Akers

I have a confession. A terrible, dark, and…disturbing confession. I like…poetry. There, I said it. Don’t judge me.

Wow. Surprised young guy expressing amazement with his mouth open standing isolated on white background.

Okay, so I’m playing up the melodrama here, but poetry once was a beloved form of pop culture and a time-tested institution. In our modern culture, poetry has fallen from grace—or has it? (But that’s another blog post.) Poetry is still around, but it isn’t the juggernaut it once was. Whatever ended the dominance of a lovely art form, personally, I blame the teachers. Most teachers in public schools (not all) dislike poetry, but I think it goes deeper than that.

It’s A Conspiracy!

Poetry has been the victim of a deep, dark conspiracy. Yes, it’s true. Several generations ago, a secret group of university teachers decided that poetry students weren’t serious enough about the art and it was up to them to make poetry a solemn and austere pursuit. So they sucked all the fun from the subject and decided to teach students that all good poetry has to have some cryptic message made from a secret code. Only those few astute enough to divine this message were fit to belong to the in-crowd, that sacred group of literary critics, college professors, literary agents (not all agents), and Facebook Trolls. The rest of us are only fit for daytime television and reality TV. I want to blow the lid off the conspiracy and expose the underbelly of this pernicious anti-poetry plot once and for all. Poetry is for everyone. So if I disappear after posting this, you will know what happened to me. It’s time to expose the lies.

Lie One: Poetry is Boring

It’s true some poems are boring and painful to read. Stories can be the same way, but that’s often because of craft or technique. You need to understand one very important thing about 99.9 percent of all poetry: poems work best when read out loud. It’s why we find poetry so difficult to write, because we should be speaking as we create, not running lines silently through our heads. There are other things that make poetry difficult to write and painful to read, but that’s also another post.

You may ask, “Isn’t reading poetry out loud extra work? You have to think about words, ponder dual meanings, consider the nuances of meter and tempo, and then sort out the connected emotional connotations.”

Yep, that absolutely true, and it’s hard to do…until you speak it. When you read out loud, you use different portions of your brain at one time. Your brain, if it’s healthy, will do all of that in a blink. The average brain is wired for it.

No one ever told you poems were intended to be read out loud? Those insidious conspirators! Here is a personal favorite of mine, read by Benedict Cumberbatch. This poem always makes me appreciate the absolute wonder of human language and the brain’s capacity to perceive it. It’s also fun.

To be honest, Carroll’s Jabberwocky does a lot of fun things on many different levels—notice I said, “FUN”. Poetry should at least be fun. Not everyone likes to have fun in the same way, so not every poem has to be fun in the same way.

If a poem isn’t catching your fancy, try reading the poem out loud. Reading a poem silently is like singing a song without moving your lips. Ponder this:

 

 

Lie Two: Poetry is Absolutely Useless

Fact: If poetry is useless, you ain’t doing it right. It’s hard to have hit songs without words to sing, and guess what kind of words are in songs? Poetry!

Remember all those advertising jingles? Most all the poets have gone to work for advertising agencies, creating slogans. It’s not just songs or advertising, either. Other kinds of poetry have profound uses in other cultures. Let me draw your attention to the much-maligned Haiku.

Remember your elementary school teacher making you write Haikus before you were able to count syllables? He\she gave you such weird poems too. Let me show you how much fun Haiku can be, and how much can be said with such few words. Of course, this really good example employs speaking poems out loud.

This marvelous example comes from those wonderful writers of the Last Airbender cartoon series.

Poetry isn’t for wimps, as you can see from Sokka’s example. See what happens when you read poetry out loud? You get cute girls giggling at you. You’re able to tick off a teacher, and she can’t do anything about it, unless you break the form. Poetry isn’t just fun; it’s serious fun.

Lie Three: Poetry Even Looks Boring

Fact: Some poems could be, but not all. Remember the 99.9% of poems need to be read out loud? Here are the .1% you can read quietly. Ever hear of a concrete poem? It probably has other names too. Think of it as a marriage between words and shape. Sort of like the internet. A lot of people find this easier to write in this age of computers, but George Herbert was doing this back in the 17th century.

This is a famous one by George Herbert.

Everyone thought all those fancy logos with phrases was a new thing. It’s just borrowed from poetry. Here’s a good example of new stuff from John Grandits. (Hint: Click on the text below the graphic. A new tab will open and a sound recording of the poem being read by its author will download. You will also see a modern concrete poem.)

Lie Four: Poetry Is Only for Kids; It’s Frivolous and Meaningless

Fact: It’s true kids love poetry because they’re experimenting with language and enjoy all the new sounds and words. In the beginning of poetry in western civilization, most poetry was written for adults by adults. As much as I think poetry can be fun, it can also be serous in meaningful ways.  Here is a present day example by a veteran of the Iraq war, Brian Turner. He found that poetry helped him face horror, fear, uncertainty, and gave him hope. I recommend his complete book of the same name.

Still don’t believe poetry can be entertaining, relevant, and exciting? Look for the next post about poetry in my blog tour, and I’ll share some more. Someone has been skulking around the neighborhood this evening. Those scary teachers are at it again.

Remember when you had to endure that dreaded poetry section in English class? Share that one thing that turned you off to poetry. Go ahead and rant. What might cause you to read poetry again?

 

T.J. Akers desires to be a multimillionaire when he grows up and give his wealth to his favorite causes: churches, schools, and animal shelters. Since the millions have been slow in coming, he’s settled for working as a computer technician for a state university and volunteering at his church and local animal shelter. Whenever possible, he indulges his love of writing stories to entertain people, especially younger readers. Akers holds a Masters of English from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and can often be found roaming the university’s library, especially the children’s and young adult sections. Librarians have always been his heroes. He lives with his beloved wife of thirty years, his dog, and two cats. The dog is an excellent writing companion, but the cats have proven to be rather critical. Learn more at http://www.tjakers.com.
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9 comments on “4 Lies People Believe About Poetry

  1. I love this TJ! I didn’t have an appreciation for poetry until college when I had to write a paper about a poem of my choosing. I choose “Because I could not stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson, and having someone help me dig through what I felt was the meaning of it was life-changing in my view of poetry. Very great post!

    • I so love Emily Dickinson’s work. Did you know all of her poems were written in a journals and went undiscovered until her death? She wrote 1800 poems for the sake of writing. BTW-Writing poetry is to novel writing like aerobics and weight lifting are to sports. It is marvelous exercise for discovery and best done in a group.

  2. Such a fun post! Thank you, T.J. Akers and Kristen!

  3. Totally agree. Also, poetry is incredibly useful in certain creative fields, including marketing content. Learning beats, stress patterns, evocative phrases, minimalist styling, alliteration? All part of poetry, and all part of taglines and other short work. I loved revealing the uses of poetry to my students when I taught.

  4. Poetry in song lyrics enriches my life every day. I love how a simple turn of phrase can reveal a fresh aspect of something (for example) as old and familiar as Jesus’ resurrection. It’s an astounding miracle, but it’s so familiar to Christians, and sometimes it loses its punch. Then I hear something like this and it’s all brand new again:

    “The tomb where soldiers watched in vain
    was borrowed for three days.
    His body there would not remain.
    Our God has robbed the grave!”

    Borrowed for three days! I love that.

    Great examples, Tim. I do think poetry is hidden all around us and a big part of our lives, even though it gets a lot of disrespect. Thanks for standing up for it.

  5. Oh, and I love George Herbert’s stuff, too!

    Found him for the first time a few years ago, and love his devotional work. Something about that old English has a way of sneaking up and surprising me, because it takes a moment for my mind to grasp the meaning. Then it bursts upon my consciousness like chocolate melting on my tongue, all rich and sweet.

    Here’s a snippet from Herbert’s “The Temple: Providence”:

    O Sacred Providence, who from end to end
    Strongly and sweetly movest! shall I write,
    And not of thee, through whom my fingers bend
    To hold my quill? shall they not do thee right?

    Of all the creatures both in sea and land
    Onely to Man thou hast made known thy wayes,
    And put the penne alone into his hand,
    And made him Secretarie of thy praise.

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