Poems Belong Everywhere

I love poems, but I don’t always particularly enjoy poetry.

I like the way a really good poem slices through the baggage of words and gets to the truth of things. I like the way a really good poem makes familiar objects seem unfamiliar. I like way a really good poem can surprise you, catch you off guard and force you to acknowledge beliefs you did not realize you held.

I love poems, but I have a terrible time with Wordsworth, Yeats, Keats and the crew. There was a time when I assumed that Eliot, Stevens and cummings spoke with ideas and a voice more rarified and brilliant than my own. I bashed my mind against their verse, trying to unlock their elevated ideas. It never happened, so eventually I stopped.

Then I started reading Kerouac and Ginsberg, Billy Collins and Mary Oliver and I began to understand poems again. Poems are a kind of meditation. Poems are moments of complete attention where the object and the subject disappear. Poems are acts of gratitude. Poems are declarations not of how things should be but declarations of how things really are. Poems are prayers.

Poems are useful. They have a purpose in every day life. The problem is, too often, poetry gets in the way of poems. Poetry makes poems into an abstraction, an idea of a thing rather than the thing itself. We teach ourselves to fear poetry in high school and then feel ashamed about that fear for the rest of our lives.

I particularly like the way Billy Collins puts it, “It is a good thing to get poetry off the shelf and more into public life.” His 2012 TED Talk shares some ideas on how this might work. I was particularly amazed by the animated poem mashup he undertook to bring 5 of his terrific poems to a new kind of life.

Take a look:

What do you think about the idea of poems in public life? Where does the world need poems? How can we get them there?

11 thoughts on “Poems Belong Everywhere

  1. I evidently share your taste in poetry, at least to some degree. I don’t like poems I don’t understand. Poems shouldn’t be puzzles that everyone makes their best guess about. Don’t know if you’d like mine, or not. 🙂


  2. Yanno what bugs me about poetry read aloud? Especially by poets? Everyone seems to go into William Shatner mode and read with portentious pauses… between each line… to signify the gravitas.

    I like poetry when it grabs me by the spine and shakes me around, but I’m not even sure where to go to find the spine-shaking stuff. More often it’s the head-shaking stuff I stumble across. I should seek out more, but my high-school installed Poetry Defense Shield is pretty resilient.


    • Agreed. Maybe a big part of the Poetry Haters experience has to do with the way it is presented. Pretentious on the page. Pretentious when spoken. Poems shouldn’t exclude people. Poems should invite people in.

      It is hard to read a poem aloud. My personal fave is hearing Ginsburg read “Sunflower Sutra”. He writes like a prophet and reads it as such. You get the feeling that Jeremiah or Ezekiel used the same kind of voice when crying outside the city walls.

      Did you like the way Collins read these pieces? Or did Collins, like so many others, become the Shat?


      • I only watched through the first animated poem. I loved the animation, and I quite liked the poem, but yes, he did read it with a sort of precious intonation with pregnant pauses.

        I absolutely agree that it’s hard to read a poem aloud, or really any writing. Authors are often the worst readers of their own writing. In fact, a lot of “literary” writers read their prose with the same sort of precious, sing-song quality.

        I think the ideal for reading works aloud is to perform them with whatever natural speech patterns they inspire. Quiet but steady for introspective pieces, perhaps staccato for experimental or jarring poetry, and thunderous for “prophetic” works. Be wary of unnatural pauses and sing-song delivery.


  3. I like your distinction between poems and poetry (a bit like distinguishing between religion and Religion). I think poems have to be a little complex otherwise you don’t slow down and give them your full attention but it’s no good if you can’t come to the meaning after several minutes. I’ve been trying to get to the core of a Ruskin quote I stumbled across, convinced it contained the meaning to life because so many people have quoted and shared it, but after twenty minutes it still wasn’t all that clear! I gave up.


    • I agree. Complexity in a poem is not a bad thing. In fact, we have special words for overly simple rhymed verse: doggerel and drivel.

      I just got so frustrated with myself trying to decode “great poetry” only to discover it did not speak to my life. That’s when I realized why so many people think they hate poems. They don’t. They hate pretention and willful exclusion.

      Poems shouldn’t be puzzles. They should be answers.

      Thanks for following along and for the great comment. I may try Ruskin just kicks. If I do, I’ll let you know.


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