Poetry Isn’t All That Complicated

It isn’t fancy. It’s sometimes funny. And it’s definitely something you can enjoy, no MFA required.

“I don’t get poetry.”

I hear that a lot, whenever I mention that I write poetry. Even from fellow writers, which is pretty amazing. If you didn’t know otherwise, you might think that poetry is this obscure, strange, old-fashioned and convoluted art.

To be fair, your high school English teacher probably didn’t help much.

Most of my English teachers barely covered poetry at all. They might cover a few of Shakespeare’s sonnets, maybe, along with a few simple acrostics and basic 5–7–5 Haiku (I promise you, a Haiku is so, so, SO much more than a poem written with 5–7–5 syllables. It’s a bitch of a form, one that I tend to avoid. But that’s a story for another day.).

But, by and large, it’s barely a blip on the curriculum. So teachers will tend to cover the greatest hits, especially the stuff that’s in the public domain, so they can get the books on the cheap. (I am not blaming teachers. I love English teachers.) So you end up getting this complicated, antiquated view of poetry; probably with a lot of forsooths and mangled word order to fit a rhyming scheme.

I’m not going to shit on teaching the classics. There’s a time and place for it. But if I was interested in keeping students interested and engaged; I might skip some of the Shakespeare and jump straight to some Sierra DeMulder:

Just let her words sink over you. (I promise you classicists I’ll include some Shakespeare later on).

Don’t you think this would do a much better job of teaching the beauty of poetry? It has the same sound, the same music as Shakespeare, but it isn’t quite as convoluted. There’s a lower barrier to entry; it’s easier to engage with.

Later on, once they’re in love with poetry, you can let them wrestle with Shakespeare and Milton and Dante.

Too many people posit poetry as this difficult, convoluted thing. Think of the scene from Dead Poet’s Society where they read the textbook about understanding poetry.

To fully understand poetry, we must first be fluent with its meter, rhyme and figures of speech, then ask two questions: 1) How artfully has the objective of the poem been rendered and 2) How important is that objective? Question 1 rates the poem’s perfection; question 2 rates its importance. And once these questions have been answered, determining the poem’s greatness becomes a relatively simple matter.

I agree with Robin Williams’s analysis of this:


It’s absolute shit.

So, what is poetry?

I think my favorite explanation of poetry comes from one of my favorite TV shows, The West Wing. If you’ve been following me a while, you may have seen me pull up this quote and scene before. I really love it.

Words, when spoken out loud for the sake of performance, are music. They have rhythm, and pitch, and timbre, and volume. These are the properties of music, and music has the ability to find us and move us, and lift us up in ways that literal meanings can’t. Do you see?

Imagine that everything that’s ever been written could be placed on a spectrum. At one end, there’s prose. It’s written purely to convey information in an economical fashion. It can be well-written, but the function of the writing is merely to convey information. It is — and rightfully should be — dry, emotionless, devoid of any kind of emotional bias that might get in the way of conveying facts.

Poetry, meanwhile, is the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s writing that’s meant to inspire pure and raw emotion. It can do this through telling a story, but it should also do this using language and mechanics. Where prose is concerned with using the precisely correct word, poetry is more willing to sacrifice the correct word for the one that fits the music and feeling of the poem best.

But, of course, poetry and prose aren’t mutually exclusive: there’s a rich spectrum of blending between the two.

Where an academic might strive to write a research paper as prosaically as possible, an essayist or novelist might slide a little more toward the poetic — employing more figures of speech and aim for some euphony in their prose. Make it sound good to the ear. In the clip above, President Bartlet’s wishing his priest would do a better job of that.

Some authors, like J.R.R. Tolkien and Kerry Kletter do this very well. The words sound like music, whether you’re reading them out loud or in your own mind. They have that perfect golden blend between poetry and prose that a novelist should aim for.

You don’t, after all, want your book to sound like it belongs in a medical journal or buried behind some article on the mating habits of single-cell amoebas.

You don’t have to be afraid of poetry; poetry is everywhere around you. It’s in the brilliant Aaron Sorkin clips you watch on TV. It’s in the novels you read; it’s in the posts here on Medium. And, of course, it’s in the songs that you love.

It’s not all Shakespeare and Paradise Lost, though Shakespeare can be wonderful, too.

It doesn’t have to be the difficult and obscure thing that our popular culture has turned it into.

Try to read some — I’ll include some of my favorites below. And try to write some. And, if you do, Medium has a terrific poetry community. Feel free to post it, and drop the link below. I’d love to see it!

Some Poetry Recommendations

(Just a heads up: these are affiliate links, which help me make some money, so I can keep writing! I don’t suggest anything that I don’t love and wholeheartedly recommend.)

My first recommendation, for those who want to try their hand at writing poetry, is Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled.

I wish I’d had this book when I was growing up as a poet. If you’re familiar at all with Stephen Fry, you’ll understand why you need this. before reading this, I’d never read a text book that made me laugh so hard that I cried.

And for reading:

These should be accessible without being too difficult or obscure; a good introduction to the power of poetry.

I hope that you will enjoy poetry. Poetry has been a wonderful world to me; I can’t imagine my life without it. There is so much to discover, and so much to express in unexpected and unusual ways. There is so much possibility in this language we love.

Go out and find it.