by Rachel Baker
“I hate poetry.”
“It’s too abstract, I don’t know where to start. I feel like need to read it 100 times before I understand what they’re trying to tell me.”
This interaction with my friend got me thinking about how many times I’ve heard some variation of the phrase, “I hate poetry.” And it’s kind of a lot.
People have given poetry and poets an elusive stigma that is far from reality. Although I enjoy poetry, I too am guilty of this. Poetry is the friend I’ve been afraid to make. Maybe she’s too cool, too smart, too aloof for me, but something has stopped me, a creative writing minor, from ever seriously writing a poem.
The general population does not want to put a lot of effort into a leisure activity like reading. And most poetry does not qualify as a “beach read” discussed in the previous post. However, I do not think poetry is a like a new language that you have to learn in order to appreciate a work.
Before I saw quatrains and iambic tetrameter, I heard a childhood lullaby. A small body curled up in a too big bed, I would ask my dad to tell me a story. He would rattle off fictional encounters with alligators in the sewers beneath the city, stories of his crazy yellow lab who made my grandma’s hair grey, but when all imagination ran out, he would recite rhymes that had somehow been filed into his memory. “Whose Woods These Are” became my favorite request, but most people know the poem as, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I don’t know if I even processed the fact that it rhymed, because to me it was a bedtime story, a sweet melody out of my hero’s mouth. As I drifted off to sleep I was captivated by the images of trees billowing with snow and a small pony stomping its hoof with anticipation. Maybe it was because a snow-filled wood was a rare sight to eyes that had only seen five North Carolina winters. Maybe it was the way my dad spoke, his voice putting on a show, questioning, pausing, low and slow. Maybe it was the alluring quality of isolation, dark and deep woods that knew no bounds. But regardless of the reason, I was enchanted. Robert Frost’s famous repeated lines became the last thing I heard before I entered my dreams.
My love for “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” has little to do with craft and a lot do to with its link to my dad and a time in my life to which I can never return. There is no doubt that the poem is good in a literary sense, but craft does not make the hairs on my arms stand up, or chills trickle down my legs. Poetry is a lot more accessible than most think, and although a lot of great poems contain layered metaphors and require a second reading, not all great poems have to be complicated. It is often the emotional quality that leaves a lasting impression.
I attended my first poetry reading during the Féile na Bealtaine Music & Arts Festival when I was in Dingle, Ireland. A man standing on the bar welcomed us into “the noble church of the spoken word,” better known as Dick Mack’s Pub. People spilled out the door, and I stood squished between a classmate and a weathered man without any shoes. Suddenly I was five again, in awe of the beautiful words that filled the room. Some poems were read in Irish and some were in English, some gave me chills, and some made me laugh, some took place thousands of years ago, and some took place on a modern day soccer field. I like poetry, because it invites reader or listener interpretation. Standing in that pub I realized that each poem meant something different to the poet.
This April is the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month, which was inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996 as a way to increase awareness and appreciation for poetry. I would encourage everyone to push their poetic bounds this month, read the Poem of the Week or dive into Shenandoah’s archives. Maybe I’ll even write a poem.