Monday, January 26, 2009


A meditation on poetry . . .

In my experience, students either love it or hate it.

A former student of mine once described poetry as “Satan disguised as text arranged strategically on a page." Fortunately, that was before taking this course, but I'm not sure he felt much better about poetry afterward.

In her 1921 poem titled "Poetry" Marianne Moore wrote, "I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle. / Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it after all, a place for the genuine." I like this, but what on earth does it mean--"a place for the genuine"?

I "found" a poem once. It arrived in an e-mail from the University's facilities and maintenance. I'll post it here once I "find" it again.

William Carlos Williams's poem, "This is Just to Say" is an example of a kind of "found" poem:

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold


Williams's poems raise the all-important question, "What is poetry?"

Here's a poem by Billy Collins that raises another question, "Why teach it, why write about it?"

Introduction to Poetry
Billy Collins

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.


  1. That William Carlos Williams poem is one of my favorites. I've always wanted to leave it on my refrigerator for my roommate to find.

    I have a similar sentiment towards poetry. I'm taking a creative writing class on it this semester, and it is difficult for me to rouse up enthusiasm in myself for it. Then I start to think about when i actually have to write it, and I become all the more concerned...

    -Victor M. (of the Wednesday night class)

  2. Poetry imprinted itself on me early; I remember at age 13 memorizing the entirety of "Annabelle Lee" by Poe, and the alliterative, sing-song qualities of that poem still unroll their verses of doomed love in my head from time to time, even though old Edgar himself is no longer foremost in my 'pantheon of greats'.
    I've found there are poems for every state of mind and every phase of life: I responded to Poe as a young teenager, discovered Whitman late in High School and used him as a springboard into 20th century Beat poets like Ginsberg. For a long time I lingered there in the 20th century, disdaining anything that didn't aspire to free verse and torrential outpourings of urban angst, but in recent years my fondness for what came before - long before - has returned, and I'm now as appreciative again of John Donne or Shakespeare (whose sonnet 116 I used for my Poetry Translation assignment) as I am of writers more contemporary to me. If you can pierce the outer shell of unfamiliarity that older poets sometimes present on the surface, there is a universal quality buried in those stanzas.

  3. I thought the Collins poem was interesting because it reminded me of modern poetry. We would try to beat the confession out of poems ! I know Matthew Arnold's "The Buried Life" was one I personally tortured! I never thought about it that way before. I'm taping that poem to my fridge!

  4. All of the examples of "found" poems seem like poetry to me. With all I've read, whether in school or on my own there seems to be no hard and fast definition for what is poetry except maybe a limit on the structure and length...only that when you read poetry you KNOW its poetry somehow. Kind of like your inner grammar; that sense that something is punctuated incorrectly or you just shouldn't say "Ben and me went to the party".

    If its too long - it's a epic - but not prose; and something so short is definitly poetry.

    Hard to say.

    There's a site I visit occasionaly - - I imagine we could take many of those japanese-english tranlastions as a "found" poem, with hilarious consequences...

    On a sign directing to port-a-potty:

    Only 50 Cent is Enough to Feel
    The Magic Atmosphere

  5. I would ordinarily not consider myself a follower of poetry. But, somehow certain life events tend to bring forth emotions maybe none of us thought we had. Today, as many people were laid off, a simple one rang through my head. I thought I would share.

    Tears, tears
    after so many years
    hard work, loyality
    and now fear
    how can it be
    one tap, two, now three
    let my shoulder be free
    can't you see
    it can't be me.

  6. I thought that this poem was interesting because it refers to the realization that many professors and english students often overlook; that a poem does not necessarily have to one ultimate meaning. Sometimes in studying poetry I feel that too much emphasis is placed on discovering the perfect analysis or the correct underlying message, when in fact poetry is meant to touch people in different ways. Because every individual who reads a piece of poetry has their own unique set of experiences, every person may have very different interpretations of the same poem. I think this is what makes reading poetry interesting and maybe more personal than reading prose.

  7. No more punching in out
    Thirty minutes for lunch
    Filing out TPS reports
    To work for myself
    Be my own boss in a way
    Now, here we are, these economic times
    I lost my car
    My home is going to go into foreclosure
    Everyone is struggling
    Noone wants to buy what we do
    If they do they say "Not now, not in our budget"
    I cannot get a job to save my life, noone is hiring
    If they are there are a hundred others who want the same job
    I should not have quit my job... "What day would you relive?"

  8. What is Poetry?

    Poetry, a form of literature that allows one to express their emotions when remembering traumatic, joyous, and impacting experiences in their own life, or when attempting to understand/justify the life experiences of others or society as a whole. While, standard guidelines do exist when writing a poem, history as proven that those restrictions can be crossed, and a writer can develop a poem that breaks the standard guidelines of structure, wording, and symbolic representation, allowing him/her to create a groundbreaking piece of literary art. Poetic art, which relates to the readers