Why You Should Read Poetry (Even If You Think You Hate It)

April is National Poetry Month, and to celebrate I’m going to be blogging about poetry-related things all month. (You can also join in the fun on Twitter with the hashtag #NPM14.)

Aaaaaand… I’ve probably already lost some of you.

“I don’t like poetry,” is a common statement and (I suspect) an even more common thought. Before you write me off for the next four blog posts, I’m going to tell you a secret. But you can’t judge me. Okay, you can, but you shouldn’t, because then I’m going to explain. Are you ready?

I don’t always like reading poetry.

Oh, it hurt to type, especially since I’m a poet myself. But it’s a true statement. If I give in to hedonistic instinct, I’ll pick up a novel over a book of poetry most of the time. With a cohesive plot pulling me along and recurring characters in situations I want to see out, novels and stories are easier, faster, and more likely to be fun. The act of reading a book of poetry is often not… fun. I have to make myself do it. I have to force myself to remember that it’s worth it. Because that’s the caveat: it’s worth it.

I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I love poetry. It seems that people tend to focus on the negative, so let me repeat that: I love poetry. But so many people don’t. So many people think they hate it. We poetry enthusiasts don’t like that, because we know how much value it can add to a person’s life. Out of that good intention — wanting to share the pleasure — we sometimes end up ranting and raving about how blissful poetry is, how wonderful, transcendent, etc. to try to interest the uninterested. The problem there is that when people hear that and decide to give poetry another shot, they’re often disappointed. The build-up is too much, the let-down too drastic. Which is why I’m writing this post. I do believe that poetry can enrich people’s lives, but I want to be real about it. If you don’t like poetry (or think you don’t), this is what I think you should know.

No one likes every poem. (I’m 99% sure of that.) Most people, if they’re being honest, will admit that they only truly like maybe one out of every dozen poems they read. Perhaps that statistic improves based on what author or collection they’re reading at any given time, but even if you’re reading a book by an author you very much admire, it’s rare to like every poem. The fact of the matter is there are dozens of different “types” of poems (or hundreds or thousands, depending on how broad your categories are), and most of us don’t like all of them. Some people hardly like any of them.

So reading through a whole book of poems can feel like a slog. Depending on the author, my mood, the subject matter, the style… sometimes I’ll read a whole book and go, “Why’d I bother?” Even if I can appreciate the poetry, I sometimes still don’t like it. Robert Frost is a great example of that, for me personally. I admire the hell out of his work – and the poems I love I love deeply (3 or 4 of his make my top 50 list for sure), and I believe they’re truly brilliant – but reading his collected works felt like torture to me. Man, he has a lot of poems that just don’t do it for me.

Why bother, then? If reading poetry isn’t fun, what’s the point?

Because maybe if I hadn’t read his collected works I wouldn’t have run into those 3 or 4 that truly touched me, that I carry around in my psyche. Maybe Frost isn’t the best example here, because most of us read at least the most famous of his poems in school, but just think if the same thing happened with someone you didn’t read in school. If you didn’t read through the Meh you’d never get to the Wow.

I believe that not all things worth doing are fun. I believe that there’s value beyond entertainment – beyond simple pleasure. Like yoga, meditation, or jogging: sometimes the act of doing something isn’t always enjoyable, but we do it anyway because somehow, for some reason, it makes us better people. And if we keep at it long enough we’ll hit the right moment, right mood, right magic, and suddenly it does become fun. The more we do it, the more often we achieve this. For me, poetry is like that.

Even poems that I don’t “like” have things to offer. Things I hadn’t thought of, rhythms or word choices that spark something in my mind, a different point of view, or even a reaffirmation of what I already believe. These are things of worth.

And like I said, we have to read the neutral (and bad) poems to get to the soul-shakers. Yes, we can increase our odds by reading famous poets, favorite poets, or highly recommended poets, but no one else can tell you your exact taste or predict what specifically is going to get to your core and touch you. And you don’t really know either, until you read them, which is why you sometimes have to strike out. It’s worth trudging through a few mediocre books of poetry to find a real treasure. Sometimes the most stunning poems come in the most unexpected places. Sometimes you’re the only one who sees it.

And guys, those moments are worth it. When it comes to moments of impact, profundity, and awe, there are few things in this life as powerful as just the right poem.

So today, in honor of National Poetry Month, I’d like to encourage you – all of you – not to give up just yet. Keep searching, keep reading, keep exploring to find your extra-special, remember-forever, read-and-re-read poem. I assure you; it exists. Maybe even more than one.

So get out there and find them. If you’re lucky, you might even run into a little fun along the way.

~*~

Don’t leave me hanging! I’ve confessed my deep dark secret; now it’s your turn. Do you think reading poetry is always enjoyable? Have you found a soul-shaker poem or two? And is there anything in your life that you do because it makes you better, rather than because it’s fun?

Share this:
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail
This entry was posted in Poetry and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.
  • Kaye Linden

    I “love” to read and write haiku. The form offers such a challenge. The honing of meaningful juxtaposition within just a few words is difficult yet therapeutic for the reader and writer. When I write a haiku that speaks, (not easy) I feel connected to the generations of haiku lovers who also sought a sense of meaning in our ragged existence. Kaye

    • What a beautiful sentiment. I love hearing things like this. Thank you so much for stopping by, Kaye!

  • After high school I spent very little time with poetry. Then in my MFA program as a forty-something I heard many readings by peers and instructors. I don’t have a sophisticate’s understanding of it, but I enjoyed much of it. (Some I definitely didn’t, but that was true of some of the fiction and creative nonfiction as well.)
    The more experimental poetry didn’t resonate with me. One instructor, for example, wrote some sort of “three-dimensional” poem where she had placed various people around the room to occasionally say some word. It was supposed to be more about the aural experience. I found it distracting. But you wouldn’t “read” poetry like that, so it doesn’t quite apply to this post.

    • Oh I think it applies! That experimental poem is a pretty interesting idea, actually. I imagine the success would depend quite a bit on the execution. I can imagine it being distracting and/or frustrating, but I’d still love to hear something like that!

  • Kristen Ploetz

    I love what you said: “not all things worth doing are fun.” This is so true. Running is my un-fun but worth it thing. I love being outside, the fresh air, the way I feel AFTER running–all of that. But the pavement pounding of my woefully out of shape body, the sweating and hard breathing–that is, the actual running part?? Not fun. But it makes me better, and so I do it.

    I am a very latecomer to poetry, as in within the past year (I turned 40 in January). I’ve found a few poets that I like (based on some recommendations from others inasmuch as just randomly pulling a chunk of books off the library shelf). I think I stayed away for so long because it always felt so frivolous or indulgent to read it. I was so wrong about that. I’ve come to enjoy reading it and finding the hidden gems in books that otherwise contains clunkers. The un-fun part about it (for me) is that I often feel like I might be missing something when it comes to poems I don’t like. I wonder if a class would help in this regard. But overall, I like the pithy simplicity of many poems and strive to write that way more myself. Last year, I wrote a haiku every day for the month of October for anyone in my Facebook world of friends who wanted one. It was challenging but fun and so many of them enjoyed it.

    • Yes, that’s a great way to explain that phenomenon. There’s a Dorothy Parker quote that goes: “I hate writing, I love having written.” I guess that sort of applies here, too.

      I’m so happy you’ve discovered a love of poetry! (The gifting of haikus sounds like a blast!) I know what you mean about it feeling “frivolous.” As tired as this may sound, I do think that our society pushes us toward “work work work” and “give give give,” but sometimes we need to stop and sit and think and fill up our tanks. Poetry does that for me. It isn’t for anyone else; it’s just for me, and I believe it makes me a better, more happy person. Isn’t that kind of the point of life?

  • Regina Richards

    I loved poetry as a child. My grandmother had left some books of it when she died and I read them all. But when I went to the library to find more, I kept getting what I suppose at that time was “modern” poetry. Poetry whose agenda (social, political, etc.) was more important to the poet than the rhythm of the words and the “story” they told. I got a hold of a lot of “ugly” poems. They may have been well-written but they seemed angry and whiny. I wanted uplifting or, as in the case of Poe, at least brilliant in the emotion and the execution of it. I tried again in high school spurred on by the deliciousness of Shakespeare. But while no one attacked Shakespeare, the modern poets who dared to rhyme (the type of poetry I admit I usually preferred) were sneered at as somehow unsophisticated (and those who enjoyed them were by association unintelligent). So I wandered off back into prose and there I have made my home.

    • Man. There is nothing that ruffles my feathers as quickly as a rant disguised as a “poem.” I feel the same way about comedians. I don’t like it when people take an art form and twist it to fit some thinly-veiled political agenda. Yuck! I understand the rhyme thing, too. It’s even harder for me, as a poet who loves to rhyme in my own work, to break from the stigma of “crappy/trite rhyming poetry.” It’s become so shunned in the community that I rarely send out my rhyming poems anymore unless the market is requesting them. I think that’s really sad. And I think it’s doubly sad that it has sent you away from poetry. I wish I had a contemporary poet to recommend, but I don’t know of anyone successfully and regularly doing rhyme these days. If anyone reading this does, please comment! Other than that, Regina, you could always go back to the classics. Most of the masters employ rhyme. I’m reading Oscar Wilde right now, and he’s delightful.

  • I agree, Annie. Reading poetry collections can be tedious for me. That’s why I usually break it up into sections, else it will become drudgery and I miss the subtleties. Truthfully, there are more poems I dislike than I like. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the skill of the poet. For me poetry is about emotion or as Kaye said connection. I can appreciate a well written poem, but if it doesn’t snag some emotion or extend some connection I probably won’t revisit it. *shrugging shoulders*

    • I break up my poetry reading as well, Melissa. I usually keep a book by my bed and/or in my purse. Reading one poem at a time seems like the perfect pace, to me! And I agree that it comes down to connection and emotion. Of course execution is usually a vehicle for these things, but when we “click” with a poem it’s because the message speaks to us personally.

  • Julia Munroe Martin

    I usually don’t read a lot of poetry, but I’ve found that when I do, it really makes me think about word choice and cadence more, which I love. Sometimes I even try to write poetic prose. I definitely agree that not all activities have to be pleasurable (especially in the moment… even some books I’ve read have been very difficult to read but pleasurable and satisfying in the long run). That said, I’ve been reading poems by Seamus Heaney lately after someone very dear recommended him. I really enjoy them!

    • My husband calls that “type 2 fun.” It’s something you don’t enjoy while you’re doing it, but look back at fondly later. 🙂 I totally agree; reading poetry makes me a more intentional writer, too. I haven’t read anything by Seamus Heaney;. I’ll have to check him out. Thanks for the rec!

  • Karen Walters

    Great post Annie. I’ve written a lot of poetry but not much lately because I’m working on a novel. Lately I’ve felt the nudge to get back into it and I’ve resurrected a very large goal of writing a poem for each of the Psalms, which is quite a challenge.

    You’re so right about slogging through the drudgery to get to the gems but once you find them, what treasures they are!

    • Oh, that’s an interesting challenge! Good for you for stretching yourself. Good luck!

  • Yay! I love this post. I think you’re right that most people think of the negative when talking about poems. Someone even give off the impression that it’s beneath them. But it’s so not. Poems are tiny sparks with lingering trails while novels and short stories are more of a big slow burn.

    • Thanks Febe! I love that. “Tiny sparks with lingering trails” is a little bit of poetry in and of itself. 🙂

  • Cynthia Robertson

    I have a really good book you’d probably appreciate, Annie. The Discovery of Poetry by Francis Mayes – she’s the writer who wrote Under the Tuscan Sun. I often find myself thinking poetry can be tedious, if it’s not done well, or is pretentious. But this little book just grabbed me one day as I was leaving a Borders (remember those?) and I thought, what the heck, I’ll read it and see if it helps my prose any. She gathered poems from a wide range of writers and poets, and many of them are wonderful. But what’s great about the book is Mayes uses them to explain aspects of poetry that a person who hasn’t studied it wouldn’t know about or understand. It’s made me like it much more.
    Looking forward to your month of poetry posts.

    • That book sounds fabulous!! I’ve just added it to my to-read list on Goodreads. Thanks so much for the recommendation!

  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    I love your honesty and also believe that “not all things worth doing are fun.” True. I confess that I’m intimidated by poetry, mostly because of a college experience I had in which the professor singled me out to provide my interpretation of a poem (I think I’ve told you this before?). Well – she told me, in front of the class, that she “was worried about me” because my interpretation was so “out there.” I think she even rolled her eyes. Darn you, Dr. Makins! That pretty much did it for me and poetry.

    I did, however, go to a poetry reading that I just adored. And, when you think about it, what I’m drawn to in the literary works I read (my preference in genre) is the cadence, the word choice, the sentence structure, the metaphors … the poetry. So, yes, I need to get over my college moment (that was too many years ago to count at this point.. ahem…20-year reunion coming up) and open my mind. Thanks for the reminder.

    • I do remember that story; it kills me! Don’t let Dr. Makins ruin it for you forever, though! We can’t let the bad guys win! Seriously, though, it seems like something you would really love, especially given how many poets treasure nature the way you do. If you like free verse, Mary Oliver might be a good place for you to start.

  • Kudos for sticking up for the type of writing you really believe in. I’m sure it won’t surprise you to find out I’m not a fan of poetry — unless limericks count! 😉

  • Christine Arnold

    This post really makes me want to buy and read a book of poetry! 🙂 I’ll be honest, I haven’t read much poetry since college, and it’s like you said. I didn’t love all of it. And sometimes even in the poets I liked, in the poems I liked, there would just be brief moments when something would strike me, and that would make the whole thing light up. And I think that’s one of the things I really LIKE about poetry. With novels, you judge whether or not you like it based on the overall story, the characters, the premise. But with poems, if just one stanza speaks to you out of the entire poem, sometimes that’s enough to move you. They’re the most saturated form of written art.

    • That’s so lovely! Yes, “the most saturated” is absolutely perfect. Thanks for the comment, Christine. (I really loved the poem on your blog!)

  • Marialena Carr

    Great post, Annie! I’ve always enjoyed poetry, though I undergo phases in my reading of it, and even more violent ones in my writing of it. Two things came up while reading your post.
    One was whether poetry matters. Dana Gioia asked this in an essay and a book a while ago. It can be (and is) asked of any art. A professor once told me that Stalin knew that it did. While he persecuted every member of Anna Akhmatova’s family, he didn’t dare touch her. He even had her airlifted from the siege of St Petersburg. Akhmatova and Carolyn Forche, among others, have emphasized poetry’s role in bearing witness.

    Another is that I ascribe to the unfashionable idea that not all reading has to be enjoyable. We also read to learn. We read to enter the minds of others, to see through their eyes, to share their experiences. This isn’t always exciting and much less fun. It can be downright uncomfortable. But it’s important. Poetry is a distillation of the human experience.

    I think that when we take the time to go through an entire collection, we train our ears and our minds. We become better readers. We hear and see things differently. It enables us to find the gems, to understand the cadences of language.

    Thanks for reminding me why poetry matters.

  • Jackie Cangro

    Thank you for sharing your little secret. I’m often baffled by poetry. When I attempt to comment on poems for my writing group, I realize I’m lost. I don’t get the subtext or the double entendre or even what the poet is trying to convey. It might as well be written in Greek. This is sad, but true! I seem to gravitate toward poets like Mary Oliver, Billy Collins. When I read their work I feel like it’s more “straightforward” but still meaningful. I enjoy their poems because I don’t have to interpret. I don’t want to have to sweat it out, I want to luxuriate in the feeling of the words.

    • Jackie, a lot of us (all of us, if we’re being honest) are often baffled by poetry! Even the best poetry professors will admit this. Poetry pushes us, presses up against our boundaries, and makes us think harder. I think these are good things. But I also understand the desire to “luxuriate” as you put it. Billy Collins is one of my favorites for this, too.

  • Carie Juettner

    What a great post, Annie! I agree that reading poetry can feel like a chore, and I think that turns people off. I do like to read poetry, but I usually do it in small doses– a couple of poems a day, for instance, until the book is finished, and all the while I’m still reading my novels in between. I also sometimes enjoy anthologies over collections by a single poet, for the variety. (Then again, when I really love a poet– like Naomi Shihab Nye or Billy Collins– it’s wonderful to see how each piece fits into the whole and creates their poetic voice.) I’m also guilty of ignoring the hard work that a poet or publisher put into the arrangement of the book, opening instead to random pages to read. I’m sure it disrupts the intended flow, but there is just something liberating about being able to open a book in the middle, read a random page, and still enjoy it. 🙂

    • Small doses is the key for me too! I like that you’re an out-of-order rebel. =) That’s part of the beauty of poems — that we can read just one and gain something — so I don’t think most poets would be offended by your skipping around. It’s an art created for that, really.