June/JulyBlog: Set Poetry Free!
|June/July 2008: Set Poetry Free!
Poetry has been hijacked by the literati in this country in an attempt to keep it for themselves. Every
one of us was born loving poetry, and we expressed that love with our nursery rhymes, jump rope
songs, Doctor Seuss books, and so on. Somewhere along the way we were indoctrinated to believe
that poetry is hard to understand and read—it isn’t. We were told that if we don’t like a poem or a
style of poetry there is something wrong with us—there isn’t. We were told that in order to enjoy
poetry we needed to take classes and study poetry—we don’t. I’m here to expose the fraud and set
people free to enjoy poetry.
Billy Collins, a former poet laureate of the United States, expressed a similar frustration in his
poem “Introduction to Poetry.” Let’s listen to him through this little free verse poem taken from his
book The Apple That Astonished Paris (University of Arkansas Press, 1988):
Introduction to Poetry
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 poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls
for a light switch.
I want them to water-ski
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.
So who’s torturing that poor poem? Well, I’m pretty sure he was talking about the students in his
college level poetry class. But who are they but the next generation of literati? And what does the
poetry community think of Billy Collins, one of the most popular poets of our time and someone who
consistently writes verse that you or I can understand? They turn up their collective noses because
his poetry is not difficult enough, that’s what they think of Billy Collins. In the 1,200 page academic
text The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, 3rd edition there is not a single poem by Billy
Collins. As the editor of The Giant Book of Poetry I’ve been told by numerous University Professors
that my book will never be taken seriously because it includes Billy Collins and, heaven forbid,
So how should we read poetry? I think Mark Strand gets it. Let’s look at just the first stanza of a
poem taken from his book Selected Poems (Knopf, 1990).
extract from Eating Poetry
Ink runs from the corners
of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
. . .
If we’re born loving poetry, when and where do we stop loving poetry? For most of us the answer is—
in school. Our schools are so intent on teaching us how difficult poetry is that they forget to teach us
how enjoyable poetry is. In some ways, the situation is analogous to what we often see with
churches teaching religion. You can have a relationship with God that’s full of respect and fear and
obedience, or God can be your best friend. Let’s see what kind of relationship Kaylin Haught has
with her God:
God Says Yes to Me
I asked God if it was okay
to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay
to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her
if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don't paragraph
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where
she picked that up
what I'm telling you is
Yes Yes Yes
We deserve to have this kind of relationship with God, and with poetry. I say that when it comes to
God or poetry, the answer is Yes . . . Yes . . . Yes!