Last year around this time, I put out a book called You Want Me to Read What?!It's a short book (coming in at a mere 81 pages, including exercises and glossary), meant to be an introduction to reading--and hopefully enjoying--poetry. The book peculated for years before I actually put it down in this "finished" form, but it is mainly comprised of lessons about poetry I have taught my classes over the years.
But, as most people know, poetry isn't exactly blowing off the shelves or into e-readers. It's not like people are dying for the next Billy Collins book to be released (well, there may be a few... if you even know who he is). In fact, many people don't even see a point or a place for poetry. A few years ago I came across an article in Newsweek entitled "Poetry Is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care?"by Bruce Wexler (Newsweek, May 5, 2003). He states the case--or at least most people's view of the case--well in his one page piece. The caption on the picture on the article is telling and perhaps sums up Wexler's (the world's?) perspective well: "I can't remember the last book of poetry that created a dying mosquito's worth of hum."
So then, why should people read poetry? Why would I, a teacher, require my students to read and be able to discuss poetry with some sort of working vocabulary? Why would I spend time writing a book about how to read it?
These are good questions. I can tell you that I don't teach it simply because it's required, although it is. And, I can tell you that I didn't write a book about reading poetry to make money. (I assure you, I've possibly made back what I put into the project... little more.)
Here my succinct answer: I teach poetry because there is wisdom to be gained from it.
From poetry we as readers gain experience and wisdom, via the experience and words of the poets. No, they don't speak as loudly or to as wide an audience as they once did, but the poets do (and did) see and they do speak. As human beings, we'd do well to listen and try to glean what we can from their observations and expressions of those observations.
This concept of gaining wisdom from poetry is one of the primary things I want my students to understand when we wrap up our poetry unit. What follows is an excerpt from my book about the wisdom we gain from poetry.
Wisdom? What wisdom could poetry possibly impart? Good question. After all, we don’t learn to add or subtract, fix an engine or repair a toilet, run a computer or change a baby diaper by studying poetry. What practical wisdom is there to be had, then? Well, probably the most important wisdom that poetry produces is that of experience. When we read poetry, we are shocked into being alive. Okay, that’s likely overstating the case, but somewhere in the words on the page we can find the realization of humanity and reality. Poetry is a portal into reality and experience beyond our own limited reality and experience. A poem can capture a glimpse of what is not quite expressible in our world. It can glimpse it and give it form. Therein we find problems and fears, hopes and expectations articulated. Therein our own experience is broadened, deepened, sharpened.
But a poem doesn’t simply tell about experience; it is the experience and the vehicle into further experience. Through a poem we are allowed a little deeper into our own world—into our memories, our feelings, our hopes and longings; into friends, strangers, enemies; into questions, concerns, and quandaries; sometimes, into answers. A poem allows us to know about people and to see into their eyes, to see through their eyes. This comes back full circle, for when we see the world at angles and perspectives other than our own, we understand our own angle and perspective better.
Yes, there is more to say about the topic (as always). For now, I encourage you to find a poem and seek to find the experience it offers, whether it is ideas or just sounds.
And, just for kicks and if you're so inclined, leave a comment about your experiences reading poetry.