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Terrified by Poetry

I'm late to the "What is Poetry" party. The question has been answered by the professionals, and I'm still struggling to catch up. I glean this: Poetry is pure communication, distilled emotion, architectural, the right words in the right order, a big tent, what you want it to be. And what is not poetry?

(And what is not Art?)

My confession: Poetry scares the shit out of me. It's crazy because I love words, and I love order and I love flow, but I still have a hard time with Poetry. Reading it makes me uncomfortable. Analyzing it horrifies me. Writing it terrifies me.

When I read a poem I know is supposed to be good and I don't get it, then I'm not grasping its perfection, essence, true meaning. And what does that say about me?

Poetry analysis makes me uncomfortable, much the way a lot of literary analysis does. The words fuzz out, and so does my brain. I feel stupid and dense, unrefined, undereducated, clumsy, and not serious enough. Poetry analysis feels like something I need to learn because it's good for me. And like something the Big Kids already know about, ha ha ha on me. (YES, I teach writing at a major university. Shut up.)

Writing poetry terrifies me because of the expectation of perfection. The perfect word. In the perfect order. I do write poetry -- sporadically, as catharsis, a fragment in the night. The act itself doesn't scare me as long as I tell myself I'm not actually writing poetry, I'm just pretending to. I'm just "adding to the tools in my writerly toolbox" or "making a few notes" or "doing a writing exercise."

Perfection. In prose I strive for clarity and beauty and preciseness but there is room to spread out. The longer the work, the more spreadable. In a book of 90,000 words, you can have some out of order and not destroy the integrity of the whole. In a 3,000 word short story, again, the pressure isn't as high. Flash fiction: more pressure. The shorter the piece of writing, the more I feel I need to be thin, elegant, beautiful, deeply moving, and brilliant.

And perfect.

I don't want to have to be perfect.

And yet.... POETRY. The essence of it all. How can I dismiss an entire medium?

I've noticed something odd about life. That which for years confuses and repels me often ends up entrancing and involving me. I judged opera much the same way until this last year when I started attending the live broadcast series of Opera at the Met. I swore I'd never be a teacher and a dozen years later, here I am....

Given my patterns, I'll probably end up a poet.

(Another confession: I have had a few poems published hither and yon. I always feel like somebody made a big mistake.)



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poetry is a big, fanged, hairy monster!


Thanks for posting what at least a third (or more?) of the folks in the Red Room are probably thinking! I hear this confession from my friends, students, and -- yes -- colleagues (in English departments) frequently. I hope you'll keep reading. If Belle's posts aren't invitation enough to dive into poetry, I'll be adding two more of my cents to the discussion soon! Meanwhile, here are two poems by poets I adore, to tempt you into poetryland: one and two. : )

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Love this post, Ericka

I've felt much of the same, and have wondered if some contemporary poetry are proclaimed great because the emperor and his new clothes syndrome.

I, too, am drawn to what's difficult and a mystery.

The replies from poets, students and teachers of poetry has truly been a gift. As I said in an earlier post, poetry will be everything as I grow older.

I imagine people tell you, you are poetic in your imagery. I've heard your podcasts and felt the poetry in your words. When I write my nonfiction adult books, I, too, try to make every sentence dense of imagery.

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These feel very accessible,

These feel very accessible, Evie -- and I do love them and "get" them. Belle, I don't think it's ALL contemporary poetry that feels obtuse (and punitive to me) -- there are certain "schools of poetry" that do, though. I went to Wikipedia -- no wonder we sometimes feel overwhelmed. These are the poetry school and movements that they list:


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Great goodness me!

How I appreciate your honesty here-- let me count the ways!

I became forever fearful of poetry in a tiny class while pursuing my Masters in Spanish literature. It was a summer program at UC Santa Barbara with a visiting professor from Columbia University. I was 25 years old and there were only 2 other students in the class-- one was a published author, the other a reporter. (Now that I am also both of these things, it doesn't sound so impressive, but it sure was to the likes of my 25-year old self.)

We started analyzing a poem by Federico Lorca called the "Guirnalda de rosas" (the wreath of roses). There I sat as literal as Amelia Bedilia herself while the professor and other two students discussed the obvious "fact" that this wreath of roses was symbolizing an anus due to Lorca's homosexuality.

I think that was the exact moment I decided I didn't want to achieve a masters in Spanish literature. This has zero to do with me a prude and everything to do with fear of being the only Amelia in the room.

I was brave enough to read Dr. Seuss books to my daughters when they were small, though. Does that count? :)

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Hysterical!  Thanks for

Hysterical!  Thanks for making me laugh, Shana. An anus indeed.