(From topless teens to poetry. Where is this blog going?)
As you may know, April is National Poetry Month in the United States. Several Xangans to whom I subscribe frequently write poetry. Generally speaking, I greatly enjoy their poems. But I must confess that at a certain level I am deeply intimidated by poetry. The same is true for opera and ballet, but I won’t address those anxieties in this entry.
Like opera and ballet, I realize that poetry is supposed to be a beautiful art form. And many, many times I can experience a poem and recognize that it is indeed something very beautiful. But then I get a bit frustrated that I don’t understand it. Or, at least, I don’t understand what I’m supposed to understand. Or, maybe, I have this understanding that I’m supposed to understand the poem’s meaning.
This isn’t to say that I’m completely unappreciative of poetry. Indeed, there are several poets whose work I greatly enjoy.
As a child, I read the books by Shel Silverstein such as The Giving Tree, A Light in the Attic, and Where the Sidewalk Ends. Who could not be moved by playfully subversive verse like “How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes”?
If you have to dry the dishes
(Such an awful boring chore)
If you have to dry the dishes
(‘Stead of going to the store)
If you have to dry the dishes
And you drop one on the floor
Maybe they won’t let you
Dry the dishes anymore
(Did you know, by the way, that Shel Silverstein was one of the leading cartoonists in Playboy magazine in the late 50s? And he was able to publish successful children’s books, too. Would that ever happen these days?)
As a teenager, I discovered T.S. Eliot by way of Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s musical Cats. Eliot was a Nobel prize winning poet but it was his book of light verse titled Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (which Lloyd Webber turned into the musical). I found these poems to be very accessible, if for no other reason than that I knew the music with which they went, so I could hear the lyrical nature of the poems when reading them.
There’s a whisper down the line at 11.39
When the Night Mail’s ready to depart,
Saying `Skimble where is Skimble has he gone to hunt the thimble?
We must find him or the train can’t start.’
All the guards and all the porters and the stationmaster’s daughters
They are searching high and low,
Saying `Skimble where is Skimble for unless he’s very nimble
Then the Night Mail just can’t go.’
Taken from “Skimbleshanks” from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats
Of course, who was I to know that this opening verse was in fact a parody of a Rudyard Kipling poem? That level of comprehension would have been much beyond me.
In university, I discovered (and had the chance to meet) Dr. Maya Angelou. Her books first attracted me, as the theme of exploring identity which runs through them resonated with my own journey at that time in my life. I did not read her poetry extensively, but when I attended a talk she gave at my school and heard her give voice to her poems, they came to life for me. It was her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning“, which she read at the 1993 inauguration of President Clinton, that seemed to speak widely to Americans, myself included.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
From “On the Pulse of Morning”
So you see, it wasn’t as if I had no exposure to poetry. But somehow I still feel intimidated by it. Despite the best efforts of Bob Dickerson, my junior college English professor and the first person (by virtue of his Tennessee accent) whom I ever heard pronounce poem as “po-em” instead of “pome”, I look at a lot of poetry and just don’t know what I’m supposed to make of it.
So this week when I listed to a podcast of NPR’s Talk of the Nation from earlier this month, it was if I had heard from my messiah of poetry. Billy Collins, the US Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, values approachability over pretention. The article summarizing his 30-minute interview summed up his position nicely:
[Collins] thinks former students have “lingering anxieties” about poetry. Teaching of poetry, bound as it is to the teaching of critical analysis, is the culprit. In what he admits is a cynical interpretation, he believes that to some extent, teachers “teach difficult poetry because it ensures their usefulness as people standing between the reader and the poem” who help with interpretation.
In the classroom, “every time you hear a poem in a classroom, you know questions will follow,” he says. “This sequence — hear a poem, then get interrogated over it,” says Collins, can create an anxious relationship between readers and poetry.
There it was. Suddenly my anxiety about poetry had found a voice. Someone had put into words the reason that I felt inadequate when reading poems. Every time I read a poem, I feel like I have to understand it well enough to answer questions about it.
One of the projects that Collins has worked on in conjunction with the Library of Congress is called Poetry 180. It is designed to make poetry accessible to students by presenting a poem each day for the 180 schools days each year. (Only 180?! That’s why American students are so far behind their global peers.)
The selection of poems is geared specifically to high school students. In Collins’ words, “Hearing a poem every day, especially well-written, contemporary poems that students do not have to analyze, might convince students that poetry can be an understandable, painless and even eye-opening part of their everyday experience.”
Let me share the first poem in the collection of Poetry 180. It is titled “Introduction to Poetry” and is written by Billy Collins. It sums up pretty much how I feel:
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poemor walk inside the poem’s room
and watch him probe his way out,
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
from The Apple that Astonished Paris
Now that I’ve found a poet – a Poet Laureate, nonetheless! – who has put into words exactly the trepidation about poetry I feel, it is as if I have had a catharsis. The boil has been lanced, and I can face poetry with a fresh start and now expectations.
I am just at the very beginning of my journey to learn to appreciate poetry, but I realize now that poetry is something I can learn to enjoy without having to worry about understanding it.
Happy National Poetry Month.