Most of the time when I recommend a novel to a friend who isn’t so obsessed with literature, they consider it without hesitation or complaint. However, if I suggest they read a poetry collection, they usually stare at me like I just asked them to brush up on quantum physics. Common responses include:
“Sorry, I just don’t really understand poetry.”
“I thought I was done with English classes.”
“You mean read the entire collection?”
Even within the literary community, the genre of poetry seems to have this strange veil surrounding it. When one of our fiction editors, Rachel, wrote her awesome “Five Poems” blog entry last week, I was thrilled to see that it seemed to have been an enriching experience for her, but even she admits that poetry makes her “a little nervous.”
When did poetry start to intimidate people? In my grandmother’s day, people actually read poetry for, you know, fun. So why is it now associated with some highbrow academia that should be left only to the devoted poets?
Former U.S. Poet Laureate and literary superhero Billy Collins observed this same phenomenon surrounding poetry when he decided to create his Poetry 180 project with the Library of Congress. The program is aimed at incorporating poetry into the daily lives of American high school students. Collins pulled together a collection of 180 poems by various contemporary poets that can be read each day of the standard 180-day school year. The goal is simple: to remind young people that poetry can be an enjoyable part of everyone’s lives. Collins writes on the program’s website, “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.”
Somewhere along the way, reading poetry became a painful thing for students. If the only exposure young people get to poetry is lessons on scansion and imagery, it’s easy to see how the subject can become tedious. As someone who is currently working towards a degree in poetry, even I have to admit that delving deep into the craft can be really overwhelming at times. But just because poetry is complex doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining. Reading a poem should be a personal journey for anyone, a journey in which no one can tell you you’re reading it wrong or your interpretation is incorrect. This comfort with the genre has to start with young people, so if you currently attend or work for a high school (or know someone who does), I strongly encourage you to introduce Poetry 180 to your school. And if you’re like me and enjoy an old-fashioned book you can hold in your hands, there is also a printed collection of the 180 poems.
As National Poetry Month comes to an end, I hope all of you Treehouse-dwellers will be inspired to dust off that old Robert Frost collection or copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets. And if that’s not really your style, go check out a local poetry slam. You may just discover a new favorite pastime.