Do you read poetry?
Many people don’t. Some feel poetry is pretentious. Or it makes no sense. Others admit that they don’t know what the poems are supposed to mean.
I’m the first to admit that, as a voracious reader in my youth, I tried reading poetry by those everyone knew: Dickinson, Whitman, Frost. But none of it grabbed me. If it rhymed, it felt trite. If it was about war and soldiers and death, I didn’t get it. And admittedly, as an anxious, ADD, suburban teen in the early 1980s, any poem I encountered with numbered stanzas that went on for several pages never stood a chance of being read to the end.
But then during my thirties, I entered a graduate writing program. Billy Collins was Poet Laureate of the U.S. at the time, and he gave a reading at my school. I was shocked to find the room packed. I sat in the back and thought wait, this is poetry? It was nothing like what I’d read before. It wasn’t sad and mournful. There was no death, pain or dark metaphor. It didn’t need to be deciphered. Some of it was actually funny. This, I decided, was my kind of poetry.
After that, I bought and read much of Collins’ work and was continually encouraged. A couple of years later, an insurance salesman from Nebraska named Ted Kooser was named Poet Laureate. At least, that’s what the bio said in the first book of his poetry I read. Today, several of his books sit on my shelf. My handwritten notes in the margins hint at the poems they’d eventually become.
What changed my mind about poetry, both reading and writing it? It’s a word I hate, but it fits: accessibility.
Collins’ poems held more meaning for me than any Dickinson poems ever did. The Lanyard, which Mr. Collins read that night at my school, made me laugh, tear up and even sigh. I related to it both as the child who’d once woven that lanyard, and the mother who, years later, received it. Collins taught me poems could tell stories and evoke emotion.
Ted Kooser’s poems, on the other hand, captured place, seasons and colorful imagery. His Late February paints a picture of early spring in Nebraska: the small town, its people and how they live.
Each of these poets inspired me. I like to joke that, before I began writing book-length women’s fiction, I was writing emotional truths in poems. An idea would would turn into a scene and I’d imagine what the speaker would see and feel. Those notes would become the poem, a story with an emotional nugget at its heart.
The poems collected in my chapbook, Undressing The Heart, span the years from elementary school’s first crush to teen betrayal, unrequited love, motherhood’s hopes and sacrifices, midlife challenges and regrets of old age. The collection is, like life, full of moments of truth, of realization, resignation and growth. But the poems are also, like life, infused with the hope of better days ahead.
If you do read poetry, what draws you in and holds you?
If you don’t, what do you think you might find in a poem or poet that would change your mind?