6 Reasons Why People Hate Poetry
And what to do about it
I’ve previously raised the issue of the Poetry Problem — and why I felt it MORE when I joined an MFA program to study poetry at the “terminal degree” level.
Some common things people say about poetry:
— It’s old/ dead.
— It’s nerdy.
— It’s elitist, snobbish, stuck-up, or exclusive.
— It’s boring.
— It’s hard.
— It never really interested me.
And these objections often turn, somehow, into downright hatred. People sometimes tense up when they hear the word. A true physiological response!
From my run-ins with the art form, I’ve surmised five main reasons why people hate poetry. Maybe, just maybe, these reasons have something in common.
1. No one tells you why it’s taught.
Or why it’s really that important to learn. “It’s just culturally important. There’s history to miss if you don’t learn it.” This is not satisfactory or compelling.
We should give a good introduction, beginning from the beginning. As kids, we are told why we learn how to read, tie our shoes, brush our teeth. We learn why we learn science and math: to better understand and make sense of our world. That reasoning applies for poetry too. We are a meaning-making species. Ever since we invented language, we invented something fun/ awesome to do with it. What if we just said that? Provide kids and students a meatier, healthier substance for the foundation of why we learn poetry.
2. What is taught: we beat the dead horse.
I admit, I love the classics. Robert Frost. Love the heck out of that two roads sh*t. Etc. (I really do.) But that is almost exclusively because this classic speaks to me personally; I can see a lot of my own life and dilemmas in Frost’s lines. A lot of other people can too. It strikes upon something universal: having to come to terms with competing desires, choose between unknowns, and reconcile our limitations. “And sorry I could not travel both/ And be one traveler.” Wow. Poetry that resonates universally is poetry of the best kind — what makes the classics, classics. It’s good, and fortunate, that we study them.
But too often, what is taught is over-taught, and thus under-taught. We’ve become complacent with choices in curriculum. We’ve beaten the classics to death and beyond, torturing the life right out of the lines. What does Frost really mean by, “I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.”? How would or could he know what difference it’s made? And earlier in the poem, he says both paths were, “worn…really about the same”. What are we to make of that?
We cover the material to cover it, because it should be covered — after all, these are the classics! — but then — and then — we miss the poems themselves and the point of covering the poems in the first place. And once we’ve covered the dead poems, we feel smart. “Nice, got Frost. Next!” What a tragedy for everyone.
I believe we should teach classics, but question why we do. Maybe don’t even teach all of them. And question the poems themselves. Support students as they encounter them, and bolster their growing knowledge with poetry that is new and relevant to their stage in life. This will keep poetry fresh and alive and not stinking.
3. We beat the dead horse proudly. And with large words.
One of my biggest pet peeves is when people inflate their language about a poet’s language. It’s really not a contest. When people talk about poetry in a pompous way, especially in an academic setting, like “this is supposed to be hard” and only for the select few to grasp, it erects barriers between those in the conversation.
I’m afraid doing so gamifies poetry in a false and off-putting way, perhaps even robbing one’s/others’ connection with the poem and enjoyment of its discussion. This is, unfortunately, an all-too-common phenomenon in the MFA workshop. For one’s selfish ego-stroking or lust for the A, we overtly contradict the real spirit of poetry (which, I believe, is generosity and understanding), and simultaneously propagate that pernicious stereotype that poetry is stuck-up and elitist.
Consider this thesis from Harvard’s website about how to write a thesis for a comparative analysis:
Whereas Camus perceives ideology as secondary to the need to address a specific historical moment of colonialism, Fanon perceives a revolutionary ideology as the impetus to reshape Algeria’s history in a direction toward independence.
Okay, maybe, but mostly…
If one feels the need to give a performance every time he/she speaks about poetry (or writes the inevitable paper about it), no wonder why the mere thought of “poetry” causes some people’s heart rate to elevate! With a default discourse mode like this, I can definitely see how poetry would be anxiety-inducing, especially for perfectionists.
People understand poems differently. That’s so beautiful, and I think we would all do well to learn from each other. But when words like intersubjectivity and antidisestablishmentarianism (exaggerating for effect, I hope) appear in poetry analyses, so does alienation. The thinking goes like this: “My interpretation doesn’t sound nearly as complex as his, so mine must be lesser and wrong and therefore he should be the one that speaks, not me.”
I think we should shatter the decorum enshrining traditional poetry discourse. Teachers should set the tone here, talking about poetry in both technically-accurate and straightforward terms. In turn, teachers should value and work with all varieties and levels of student input. We can accomplish this by focusing on the contribution of the comment rather than on how it sounds — and by questioning, and respectfully calling out, obfuscating terminology or explanations. Honesty should be guarded against eloquence for eloquence’s sake. (Though obviously, honesty and eloquence together are ideal.) This leads to…
4. How it’s taught: you’re either right or wrong.
Maybe, after covering a poem, we don’t feel smart. Or moved at all, just frustrated. I totally understand struggles with poetry that stem from the idea that there is only one right way to interpret or understand a given line, metaphor, or message.
I have a friend who summarizes this one pretty well. She writes,
“Even as one of the ‘smart kids,’ I never got it. And sometimes I felt like we were trying too hard to get something. Like maybe there isn’t always an intense deeper meaning but we always had to look for it anyway and I didn’t often find it.”
When it comes to poems, I don’t blame any person who “never got it”. I don’t think it was his/ her fault (unless they just never put in any effort to read and understand it, ever). If a person earnestly tried but the poem just isn’t clicking, that’s interesting! That could be even awesome, like the hot dog girl!
Too often, we shut down conversation right as we should be opening up and leaning into it. For this is where students can begin to have a critical opinion and develop aesthetic sensibilities. (Truth be told, I only learned I could have an opinion on what makes good poetry in grad school. How empowering would it have been to know that back in high school?) As with anything, a sense of ownership is crucial for developing and sustaining deep interest.
I’m not saying it’s okay to flippantly dismiss any poem you happen not to like. For acclaimed work, some context-situating or higher-level analysis may be merited. It probably should, if it’s writing worthy of your time and comprehension. But if a poem doesn’t excite you to do that work in the first place — if it doesn’t invite you in — it just doesn’t work for you. I think that should be an acceptable response, provided it can be backed up.
Of course, teachers have a large role to play (and a hugely important one) in making a poem as inviting as possible before a student makes that judgment call. It’s easy to despise Shakespeare when you’re not shown/ taught to parse (and appreciate) the syntax.
Above all, I don’t think any teacher should say to his/ her students, either directly or indirectly, “nope, that’s not right, you’re not thinking about this right” when it comes to a poem. Say instead, “which part(s) make(s) you think that?” and push further. This takes a lot of courage but is entirely and excitingly possible.
(←Thanks, Mrs. Allen!)
5. Yet…impossible expectations.
As Ben Lerner writes in, “The Hatred of Poetry”,
“Poetry” denotes an impossible demand. This is one underlying reason why poetry is so often met with contempt rather than mere indifference and why it is periodically denounced as opposed to simply dismissed: most of us carry at least a weak sense of a correlation between poetry and human possibility that cannot be realized by poems. The poet… is therefore both an embarrassment and an accusation.
When someone turns to poetry for the express reason of having it solve their problems or soothe their pain, they may very well be disappointed. Poetry might be a poor cure. A poem is its own experience in and of itself, so it can never be exactly yours (unless you wrote it I suppose).
I don’t expect a poem to nail it just right every time. That’s pretty unrealistic. So I try not to view poetry in utilitarian terms (or view poets as hero-saviors of the world. Too much pressure. They’re humans too.).
This is one reason why I felt I needed to leave my graduate program. I was looking to start a career, but didn’t want to become dependent on my poems for my livelihood or confidence. As much as I wrote about my life, I still wanted to maintain a separation between my life and my poems’ little lives. If my poems were failing, I didn’t want to go down with the ship.
The same reason that poetry might be a poor cure just might make it a great salve. I love reading poetry precisely because it allows me to envision another’s way of thinking/ feeling/ being in the world, and much of the delight and the surprise come when I find similarities (though never exact matches) between the poet’s and my own thoughts/ feelings/ and experiences. I love those moments when a poem makes me think, “Wow, I’m not as weird as I think!” The best.
So I try to keep expectations in check and look for points of connection in a poem but never demand them. (And who could?) I certainly don’t punish the poem for failing to deliver (equally untenable) or think negatively of the poet when I don’t connect. (It’s not their personal fault they didn’t get me.) I just move on and read something else.
So what do these five reasons have in common?
Most of them involve poetry education. But on a deeper level, I believe all of them involve shame.
There’s a lot of shame in American culture surrounding poetry. Shame for not understanding why we teach and learn it. Shame for not getting it. Shame for getting it. Shame for not buying it. Shame for buying it and not liking it. Shame in writing it. Shame in not writing enough. Shame in not getting published. Shame in deciding what’s published and what isn’t. Just shame all around. A sh*t show of shame, if you will.
At the root of shame, per Brené Brown, is the feeling that you are not enough.
You don’t understand this poem or its distinct cultural relevance? You’re not good enough. You don’t understand a student’s perspective on this poem? Either that’s not a good student or you’re not a good educator. You’re not writing good poetry? You’re not good enough. You’re not finding good poetry? Poetry’s not good enough for you. You get the point.
This thinking, however it manifests, is so insidious, so poisonous, for everyone. Though it’s a universal feeling, no one likes to talk about shame. So it makes perfect sense why many people hate poetry; poetry literally surfaces feelings of shame, when people usually like to keep that buried deep inside. Shame is not pretty, so, the thinking goes, we should keep it hidden away.
And poetry is not like math, where you can use rules and operations to pinpoint errors and evaluate answers. There is fear and risk involved, especially that one’s ignorance will be exposed. When it comes to teaching and engaging in poetry, we are often scared to cook without the recipe. So we don’t try, or don’t put our all into it. Students and teachers alike are afraid of making mistakes. We’re uncomfortable acknowledging, “I don’t know,” and then resolving to find out.
But when we close off conversations, when we keep our shame under tight internal wraps, we lose our vulnerability — and with it, the very source of the great things in life: empathy, joy, love, happiness, creativity, and innovation.
I find it ironic that poetry — this thing we have so much shame about — is an incredible way of combatting shame. In order to “do” poetry, we must remain open, vulnerable, and willing.
Poetry is the ultimate opening. When reading or teaching it: the way into a greater, richer conversation. When writing it: the opening of the possibility that you are good enough. The way of affirming, “My imperfect life, thoughts, and imagination are worth the effort of perfectly crafting into words. Worth immortalizing.” Poetry is the best way I know of to admit, “yeah, I’m pretty ****ed up, and that’s okay. Maybe even beautiful.” A bubbled-over rainbow-goop of beautiful.