Stop Ignoring Poetry

As an English Lit major I suffered through Chaucer but fell in love with Hopkins. Due to my obsession with the Outsiders (the novel by S.E. Hutton) I memorized Nature’s First Green is Gold by Robert Frost, but cried my way through both the Iliad and the Odyssey. What a misfortune to be taught poetry is painful, something to get through instead of enjoy.

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Robert Frost, photo from the Englewood Review

Back in the nineties I participated in a poetry workshop with the poet Tina Barr. Ten of us sat in her bohemian-styled living room while a doctor read, out loud, his epic poem. Slightly lost in his meandering prose, I watched a cat lap up water from a crystal chalice on top of an antique set of drawers. This workshop wasn’t always about avoidance. In fact, I learned to love poetry because of the eclectic voices sharing their feelings and world view in this art form.

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painting by Florine Stettheimer, Brooklyn Museum…this is how those workshops felt…kinda like heaven!

As I wrote my own poems, I began to realize poetry was more about feeling–aroma–less about uncovering deeply hidden meanings. Poems were a way to connect with others, to be part of a community outside my own bubble.There is more than one way to write and experience a poem. To write poetry we need to understand poetry’s past in order to create something new. But to be a reader of poetry we need only to come to the page open minded, leave taking what you need.

I left the workshop armed with questions to bring to every poem I read, and now share with you:

How did this poem make me feel? Why? What words inside the poem lead me to my understanding? Did I read the poem out loud to let the words come from my tongue, to hear the rhythm? 

If you haven’t read poetry since high school or college, don’t be afraid or hesitant. Not all poetry is difficult. When the poet does her job well she has created a poem for us that is communal, with language invoking a feeling or sentiment. Advice: read only poems which speak to you–why waste your time otherwise?

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poetry doesn’t have to be a puzzle. This is a puzzle I started four years ago and never finished. Shows how much I love a puzzle.

I’ve complied a list of my favorite, easy-access poets (no dactylic hexameter here) and poetry sites. Enjoy your venture into this art form!

  • Start by hearing regular folk read their favorite poems on the Favorite Poem Project site. Warning: possible goose bumps and emotion will happen, as active military, survivors, students, immigrants, a minister  share stories of why the poem selected is a favorite.
  • Poetry is meant to be heard, which is why Poetry Slams are an awesome experience. A person cannot help but get swept up in the emotion of a slam.
  • Check out the United States Poet Laureates. The current poet Laureate is Juan Felipe Herrera. Our libraries are well stocked with the works of our poet laureates. Of visit one of the many poetry websites, like the Poetry Foundation, to both read and hear our nations best poets.
  • Literary Magazines are a fantastic way to discover poetry. Often overlooked in the magazine rack of your local bookshop, these gems house emerging writers and famous names. Not just poetry, you will also discover short fiction and visual art.
  • My recommendations for Poetry are a few contemporary poets whose work I find easy to access (no headaches here) and don’t overtly rhyme (I kinda hate when words overtly rhyme). My list includes: Mary Oliver, Anne Sexton, Erica Jong, Charles Bukowski, Billy Collins, Maya Angelou, and Ocean Vuong. To read poems, by these and hundreds of others, right now, visit the Poetry Foundation
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a stack of literary magazines I keep table side

I hope I’ve made the case for why we should read poetry. If we stop ignoring poetry we might connect with each other, no matter our differences. As J.F.K said, “We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”

In closing, I leave with you Robert Frost:

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.

How The Muse by Jessie Burton Will Satisfy Your Bookgroup

Once I belonged to a book group.  Mostly women, we met every six weeks to discuss the book we democratically agreed upon.  After a decade of participating in this group I learned a few things about book groups:

  1. More people will not have finished the book than have
  2. Division between who  liked it and who didn’t will occur
  3. You will be forced to read books you normally would never pick up
  4. The best discussions come when readers identify with the characters

When I read The Muse I thought, I wish I had a book group for this novel!  Burton writes very compelling characters who are complicated, not always likable, but are driven by passion.  In many of the characters I found I could identify. Who among us has not wanted to belong, fell in love, suffered frustration over the limitations of your gender, was ambitious?  You may walk away from this story with more questions than answers, which is just one reason The Muse will make for a satisfying discussion.

Here are the 7 discussion questions I’d want to chat about over a cup of tea or a glass of wine.

  1. Why do you think Isaac accepted the arrangement with Olive?
  2. Why do you think Burton made Odell Caribbean émigré? How is that important to the story?
  3. The Muse is a story about poverty and privilege.  How do these complicated societal systems play into the narrative?
  4. Talk about the relationships between Olive and Teresa, Marjorie Quick and Odell.  How  were the relationships similar/different? How did these relationship make you feel?
  5. Do you think The Muse is a feminist novel? Why or why not?
  6. Ambition is another important theme in the novel.  How does ambition affect the characters? The story?
  7. The novel is filled with secrets and deceptions, with Odell in the role of detective. Why do you think it was important to Odell to figure this mystery out? Why was she so driven to do so?

If you have read The Muse I’d love to hear your thoughts to the questions above.  Happy reading!