Roque Dalton, that great poet and cult figure, wrote that poetry, like bread, is for everyone. I truly want to believe that, though many seem either alienated or frustrated by poetry.
Aside from a poetry workshop at the Evanston Public Library, I have only taught basic college composition. Such a task requires that I teach students some basic rhetoric and push them to revise their essays until their work resembles something akin to college level English. There is no need for poetry in my lectures or assignments, yet it finds its way in. This is because I like poetry. I try to slip it in whenever possible, even when it serves little to no purpose.
Last April, National Poetry Month, I took the email addresses of willing students and sent them a poem a day for thirty days. I told them this was not anything they needed to know for class, but they should look at it as an online conversation about poetry. It is, I said, my mission to show people that poetry can be fun and interesting. One student asked me why he needed to read poems for a comp class. A fair question. Well, I asked, why not? His answer was long and rambling but here’s the gist: poetry is an elitist, antiquated art with little appeal to the average reader outside of grad school.
So let’s address this. Yes, poetry can seem an elitist art form, what with its insular groups gathering at readings; yes it can intimidate, what with those seemingly arbitrary line breaks and metaphors; yes it can seem a bit antiquated, especially when it rhymes, but really have we come so far that we no longer need poetry? Maybe we don’t need it for a comp class, or a science class for that matter, though I might respond to such allegations with examples from the metaphysical poets, whose argument and response poems provide some of the finest examples of how to persuade. To the science student: read Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” and then let’s talk.
Okay, maybe not everyone is eager to read Old Uncle Walt, and I don’t pretend that my love of poetry makes me anything special, but I do want to believe Dalton was right. Agreeing for a minute that poetry is like bread—for everyone—then why shouldn’t there be all sorts of breads? And there are. Rye, white, wheat, sourdough… certainly a bread exists to cover all tastes. So why shouldn’t poetry, equally as varied, appeal to all readers?
I tried to introduce my students to poems that I thought they would enjoy, and I encouraged them to share poems with me. Subsequently, I have read much of the poetry of Tupac Shakur, but I have also gotten positive feedback on the Langston Hughes, Mina Loy, and Yehuda Amachai poems I emailed. Overall, I felt the poem-a-day project was a success, though I am sure no one liked every poem I sent. Regardless of the small efforts I make, it seems that there’s a lot of hostility against poetry. Conversely, there is no shortage of arrogance from some of the people I meet who claim to either love poetry, write it, or both. They are happy to be part of the exclusive clique. So is it any surprise that my students, as well as some of my family, friends, and many of my enemies, are less given to reading poems?
My goal of starting a larger conversation about poetry—the way it can uplift, inspire, amuse, annoy, and perhaps alter one’s life—seems noble to me, though I may too be in that arrogant, elitist camp without realizing it. If so: so be it. I’ll live with such charges. Nevertheless, look for my daily email (those interested) next April. Maybe I can convince a few more students that a poem is not a puzzle, an assignment, a headache, a chore, or an enemy.