On Reading Poetry

A poet I interviewed recently told me that reading teaches you empathy for the other. Reading poetry supports empathy, supports compassion. The poet was Matthew Dickman, Tin House poetry editor and author of All-American Poem and most recently Mayakovsky’s Revolver. I interviewed him for an article about his new poetry project, Poetry in the Mail, that aims to put poetry into the hands of those who don’t usually read it. Following our interview, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’m one of those people who don’t usually read poetry. I admitted this embarrassment to him immediately in the interview (truth in journalism, blah blah). I guess I feel especially guilty of my crime of poetry ignorance since I’m an avid reader and writer of fiction, a student of English literature and creative writing, and have had plenty of exposure to poetry. One of my best friends, Will, is a poet. I turned to him recently to help me understand how to ease into poetry.

Poetry + ProseA poet and a prose writer walk into a bar…

I still remember when Will and I took A.P. English together in high school. The class had to read an Emily Dickinson poem. I can’t remember the name of the poem, but I remember when the teacher asked us what it meant, what the metaphors stood for. Everyone in the class seemed to “get it,” to know that the poem was one big metaphor for pregnancy. My not getting it has stuck with me for years. For me, poetry has always seemed less accessible than fiction. I always feel like I’m missing something.

When I talked about this with Will, he responded rather succinctly by saying, “The idea that poetry has to be secretive or uber clever is postmodern horse shit.” That made me feel better. Perhaps it is best to get over my unnecessary poetry shame and simply start reading poetry. Will went on to explain that poetry is just “story + song.” Will is also a musician, so for him poetry is a natural transition. Now that I think about it, a few of the other poets I know are also musicians. I am terrifically un-musical, which could help explain why I am terrible at writing poetry.
As I begin my journey into poetry (reading it, not writing it), I think it’s safe if I start with poets who write more prose poetry. For Will’s part, he suggested Gregory Orr. Will said that good poems, “are still telling stories but the language is spare and careful.” As a fan of short stories, I can appreciate this quality. I think I might start with Raymond Carver’s poetry since he would be an easy transition for me.
I’m still intimidated by poetry. I don’t know if that will ever go away or if I will ever be able to shake the prestigious qualities I attach to poetry. But if I can attempt to read poetry, then perhaps poetry can slum it with a prose writer like me.

  1. Wonderful article, and I agree with that completely! It’s not about uncovering a mystery. It’s about the feeling, the music, the emotional connection.

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