I have loved poetry longer than I’ve loved anything else. For years of life, I steeped in it. It soothed and excited, bruised and blessed. I didn’t keep a journal, but I kept bound volumes of my own poems, and they show the journey of my young adult years. In and out of love. Uncertain, hurt, lonely, and occasionally, too deliriously happy to write a decent poem—in which case, I wrote a so-so poem. I wrote poems up until I got married. My last good poems were written while wedding planning. They sort of dwindle away after that. I’ve never written a decent poem for my husband. Poetry can be a slippery joy.
In college, I majored in creative writing, mostly because people told me I was a good writer; I minored in technical writing, mostly because people said creative writing wouldn’t pay the bills. At the time it seemed natural to believe both things.
I had some passionate poetry professors. One wore a ponytail and sandals. “When I say Allen Ginsberg, you bow,” he said, bending at the waist, “You bow.” He recited Anne Sexton’s “For My Lover, Returning to His Wife” with an east-coast accent that made the hard edges harder and the soft parts gritty. He’d known Anne Sexton, loved her, in fact. So few people on earth could read the poem like she intended, but he knows he did.
My poetry workshop professor, of all the poets I read and admired, wrote poems most like mine. He wrote quiet, earnest, manicured poems. He plucked the quiet parts of life and transcribed them into poetry. I learned more from him than anyone else about what makes a good poem.
And what makes a good poem? Why am I going on about this? It’s because we live in a society that’s lost touch with why poetry matters. Selling a book of poetry nowadays is next to impossible. It’s not valued by the common man, only by a few academics in colleges and universities—and they enjoy the classic stuff almost to the exclusion of what’s being written today.
Why is this? I can tell you exactly why—poetry is too often elitist, pedantic, affected, and unapproachable. It uses words and rhythms we don’t use in everyday conversation. It talks about things we don’t care about. In short, it isn’t real enough for people to connect with. I have to read upwards of 100 poems to find one that really speaks to me, that, as my ponytailed professor would say, “burns me down.” Who has that kind of time?
So I get it, I do. But I’m telling you that you can like poetry, and you probably do like poetry, you just haven’t read—don’t tell my old college professors—the really good stuff yet. I want to show you poems you’ve never read (unless you’re a “poemophile” like me), walking you through the best moments, pointing out metaphors that bring tears to my eyes, and showing you that poetry can be humorous, explosive, radiant.
William Carlos Williams closes his poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” with these words: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserable every day / for lack / of what is found there.” I agree. Okay, perhaps “die miserably” is overstating it—but men and women do “whither,” and I might say “suffer an unconscious deficiency of joy” for lack of poetry. Good poems are moments in time, a thread pulled through a buttonhole. Good poems are glittering gems on a windswept beach. Good poems are short journeys around the block where you encounter something so new to you, it stands you still. Good poems are unexpected holes broken open in your life’s sky, and when the rain—or the sun, depending—showers down, you realize until that moment that you didn’t know it could be like that.
Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to feel that after reading a poem. But if not, I’ll introduce you to some of my favorites so you can.