And that’s the trouble with poetry

I awoke this morning to the hammering sound of rain. Just what you want out of your Monday morning – dark, wet, gloom. I made a batch of strong, dark coffee to match the mood. I turned to my one true source of motivation – books.

I cracked open Matthew Zapruder’s new book, Why Poetry. He’s on a mission to bring poetry back to the people. He argues that the way poetry is being taught in schools puts most people off of it for life.

“So many of us have been taught to read poetry as if words mean something other than what they actually say.  In this version of poetry, poems are designed to communicate a message, albeit in a confusing way. Everything that is in the poem – metaphors, similes, imagery, sounds, line breaks, and so on – is decorative, that is, place on top of the message or meaning of the poem.  The student’s job is to discover that meaning, and to repeat the central (often banal) message or theme back to the teacher, or in the exam.”

Liz Lochhead, former makar (poet laureate) of Glasgow, had this to say:

“The way poetry is taught at the moment is absolutely appalling…they teach poetry as a problem, rather than a joy, and that’s disgraceful…It’s clear that even teachers think poetry is code. I have been asked by a boy, who emailed me once: ‘when you wrote that poem about a bull, what did you really want to say?’ His education had allowed him to get the misapprehension that a poem is a code trying to get a message across.”

And that’s the trouble with poetry, it gets a bad wrap in school and few people, except sad sacks like me, ever recover.  It’s funny for as much as I read poetry is dead and that I should be a writer of a different sort, I can’t shake the poetry bug.  I love it and it’e my favourite form of self-expression with words. I love the wild ride poetry allows you take with language.

My favourite poems are those that are self-contained, that is, you can use your literal imagination to enjoy the poem as it is on the page without having to have an extensive knowledge of obscure literature or need a guidebook to help your navigate the many allusions and references (which is ironic, seeing how the poet that got me fired up about poetry when I was 16 was T.S. Eliot, but to be fair, I didn’t understand what the heck he was on about in the Waste Land, I just loved the pure language. And Prufrock and Hollow Men easily stand alone).

Zapruder nailed it for me though when he said, “poetry can only fully be pursued when the writer is not ultimately preoccupied with any other task, like storytelling or explaining or convincing or describing or anything else.” The poet must “be ready to reject all other purposes, in favour of the possibilities of language freed from utility, is when the writer becomes a poet.”

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