A Poetry FAQ for Regular Folks

Header image by Brad Neathery via Unsplash

Poetry and country music have something in common.

When you go into the record store, you can get away with, “I like everything but country. Fuck that shit.”

When you go into the bookstore, you can get away with, “I like everything but poetry. Fuck that shit.”

Country music is going to have to dig itself out. Because it’s poetry month, I’ve got a little insider knowledge, and I’ve only got time to solve one major cultural crisis today.

The problem is that people feel like poetry isn’t for them. And they’re right. Poetry isn’t famous for being suited to regular folks.

Let’s start with this: a list of frequently asked questions and some answers. Now, keep in mind, I’m not a poetry professor, and I have never owned a beret.

Without further talk about how unqualified I am for this, let’s do it.

Q: Why should I care about poetry at all?

Some people will tell you, “You’ll never know until you try.” That’s bad advice. Before I had a colonoscopy, a period I refer to as my personal B.C., I was fairly certain that it wouldn’t be something I enjoyed. I was very right. Because there’s nothing fun about a day of not eating, a night of firing diarrhea harder than you’ve ever fired diarrhea before, all capped off by getting a camera shoved in your butt at the crack of dawn. I suspected this wouldn’t be enjoyable, and I was right.

But poetry isn’t like a colonoscopy, okay? It’s more like a musical or opera. You might be right, you might hate it, but maybe what you hate is the thing you THINK poetry is as opposed to what it really is.

It’s fine to dislike poetry, but read further and make sure you've got a good bead on it.

Poetry: Not as bad as a colonoscopy. How am I not Poet Laureate yet?

via Wikipedia Commons

Q: Why does poetry make me feel stupid?

First off, is it poetry that makes you feel stupid, or is it people who love and/or write poetry? Two different things.

Lots of people who know about poetry make other people feel stupid. This is sometimes a thing they do on purpose, sometimes a thing that just happens unintentionally. If it’s people who make you feel stupid, not poetry, then read some poetry in secret. Explore away from prying eyes.

If it’s poetry that makes you feel stupid: You’re not stupid. Okay? Get over that. If you’re reading poetry that just plain doesn’t make sense to you, you’re reading the wrong things.

You know how you can walk into an art museum and some of the paintings are great, some are crap, and some are just confusing? EVERYONE has those categories, they just put different paintings into them. Not liking a painting or not understanding what the artist is doing doesn’t make you stupid. Sometimes an artist is not speaking to you. Sometimes they make crappy things.

Same goes for poetry. Treat the library and bookstore like an art museum. Stroll through, and if something makes you feel stupid, just toss it in the "confusing" bucket and move on.

Q: What’s the difference between a poem and a really short story?

It’s a great question. Lydia Davis writes some short stories that could be called “prose poems,” and she’d probably go there if there was money in it. Louis Jenkins writes prose poems that could easily be swapped into a book of very short stories.

Short version, there’s no real difference other than the writer’s intent.

Longer version, when I was a kid, I worked at McDonald’s. The shake machine, you’d make a strawberry shake. All the flavors came out of the same nozzle, so there was usually a little, tiny bit of strawberry left in the nozzle when you finished making that strawberry shake, so you’d get maybe a dime-size blob of strawberry in the bottom of the next shake, which was supposed to be chocolate.

Is a chocolate shake with a dime of strawberry in it still a chocolate shake? Probably. But what if you made two blobs? Three? If you got as close to half and half as you could?

The real key here, when you finished filling the cup, you had to ring it up as chocolate or strawberry. There was no “fraction of this, fraction of that” option.

Here’s how this translates: When a poet is writing poetry, it might not be super clear, the line between poem and super short story. The only time it really matters is when someone goes to ring it up, or in this case, sell it to bookstores and online. It’s gotta go online, in a spot in a bookstore. Eventually you pick a lane.

Bottom line, it only has to be labeled for the purposes of selling it, so you might as well go with whatever the writer says it is. They’re not trying to trick you. If the book says “Poems” on the front, then it’s poetry.

Q. How do poets know where to stop a line and start a new one?

Ah, the “line break.”

Poets get a “feel” for it, same way you get a feel for when that scrambled egg is just right.

Sometimes this is a prescribed thing. Like in a haiku, you have a certain number of syllables per line. But sometimes this is... think about it like another form of punctuation. It can indicate a few different things. It might be a pause. It might also be a way to put emphasis on a line, either at the end or the beginning of the line that follows.

Sometimes it’s pretty random. That’s not very thoughtful of the poet, but it happens.

Here’s a way to get this down: What’s something you know how to do without thinking about it? Usually something physical. Do your fingertips know where the keys are on the keyboard? Did you swim a lot and jump in the pool and just start swimming? Can you cook something without a timer or a recipe?

It’s like that. Poets get a “feel” for it, same way you get a feel for when that scrambled egg is just right.

If you’re reading a poem and the breaks just don’t make sense to you, you and that poet might just not get along. Give ‘em a couple shots, but if the line breaks keep tripping you up, it’s probably not the line breaks as much as it is this poet’s use of them.

Q. How important is the layout of a poem?

Layout is one of the things that’s important to poets in ways it’s not to fiction writers. Most fiction writers, I should say. The difference here is that the layout of typical fiction is designed to be ignored, to fade into the background. You’re not really supposed to notice it. Sort of the way subtitles are meant to be very clear but as unobtrusive as possible.

The layout in a poem is different. The layout is very intentional. Space is used as another form of punctuation, as a place to take a breath, or to emphasize something. Something might be right-justified, say, and in a good poem that makes sense based on the subject or tone of the poem. Sometimes there are extra spaces between words, lines organized in strange ways, and things that just look odd.

When you encounter a poem with a weird layout, just ignore the picture of the entire page and start with the first word. Then move onto the next and the next. Pretty soon you'll finish the whole thing.

Q. What’s the deal with rhyming and not rhyming?

Rhyming is a choice, and sometimes poems rhyme, sometimes they don’t. Poems definitely don’t have to rhyme. I’d also say that rhyming poetry has been more fashionable at times. Right now it’s not highly popular.

There are some received knowledge things, factoids you’ll hear about rhyming being used to help people remember very old stories, like The Iliad. If you can remember this line ends with a certain word, then you know the next line rhymes, which gives you a hint to the next line. This is probably not true. It's a lot more likely that orally-recited, long stories were a little different every time and orators remembered the beats of the story, not the exact lines.

You’ll read books of poetry with no rhyming poems, all rhyming poems, and you'll read some that have both rhyming and non-rhyming poems. Kay Ryan writes some rhyming poetry that's pretty easy to get into.

Q. How important are forms like haiku and sonnets and stuff?

If you’re writing poetry, forms are a great challenge. Oftentimes the way writing (and art) is taught is with restrictions. You’re not allowed to do this or that, use these types of words, say certain phrases, that sort of thing. Forms are a great way to press yourself, and when you press yourself, good things can happen.

I have a pet theory on forms for the reader side.

If you create within a rigid pattern, it’s easier for the audience to read it the way you meant them to. It’s closer to the voice you have in your head. Today there are lots of different tools to impart that information. The images on the cover. Audiobooks. The inevitable book to movie. But forms may be a way to impart more of the tone that doesn’t come through in the words alone.

You’ll read some poems that are in a form, and you won’t even know it. And some “forms” are really more about tone or purpose than they are numbers of syllables or rhyme schemes. Sometimes a poet will start a poem in a form, and the final draft will move away from that form once the poet has figured out what they really want to do with the poem. I’d advise you don’t worry about forms until you’re interested in writing your own poetry.

Q. What About Slam Poetry?

Sure, slam is in the mix. My take is that slam is different from other forms because while most poetry is best aloud, slam has a performance aspect that's key to it being understood and appreciated. Reading slam is a little like reading the lyrics to a favorite song. It’s something you’d do if you were already a huge fan or wanted to check a lyric, and it’s probably a critical step to writing and performing yourself, but probably not the way most people experience it. Maybe the simplest way to think about slam is that it’s somewhere in the triangle formed by written poetry, hip-hop, and freestyle rap.

I’d also say that slam is almost always political and/or identity-related, which makes slam somewhat unique. Most forms don’t have a subject matter tied to them as strongly as slam.

Q. Is my favorite hip-hop artist a poet?

Is your favorite hip-hop artist Rakim? Because then, yes, totally.

Personal loves aside, if your favorite hip-hop artist fancies themselves a poet, then why not?

The one thing I’ll say, if someone asks about your favorite poets, it’s fine to say a lyric writer is your favorite poet. BUT, you should have some poets working in print or slam in your back pocket to compare them to. The world’s not fair, and people will respect your opinion more if you say, “I think Boots Riley is the greatest poet of all time,” and then you can demonstrate that you’re comparing Mr. Riley to Philip Levine or Yusef Komunyakaa or Lucille Clifton. To put it another way, don’t cite a hip-hop artist as your favorite poet because they’re the only poet you can name. That’s like telling your only son that he’s your “favorite” son.

Q. Why did all my teachers in high school love Robert Frost and shit like that?

Well, this gets into theory on how canon is formed, so buckle up: English teachers often become English teachers because they like the stuff they learned in English class. So, they continue to pass on the things their teachers loved, and it goes on and on.

My favorite poem I read in high school English was "Short-Order Cook" by Jim Daniels. When we talked about it in class, I learned pretty quick that I was the only one in the AP English class who’d worked fast food and felt what Daniels was saying. I’m really grateful I got the chance to see this poem because it changed what I thought poetry was.

Poetry isn't all long-dead dudes who talk about the woods.

That said, if you like poetry, take a look at some of the classic writers. There are a lot of things about assigned reading that I hated at the time, but I can appreciate more as an adult. Honestly, it boils down to a lot of the ideas in poems having to do with later life, which isn’t terribly relatable when you’re 17 and have your life in front of you. It's the way reading The Old Man and the Sea when you’re 35 is a great experience, and reading it when you’re 15 is a snooze.

Q. How Do You Pick Out A Good Poetry Book To Read?

It’s tough. It’s much harder than a novel. Poetry is a matter of small differences in taste. But I have a technique I can recommend. Check out the poetry section at your library. Pull out a few books. Flip to the table of contents, and look for titles that interest you for whatever reason. Pick out a couple, and then flip to those poems. If you like what you read, if it makes you want to read more, then check it out. If it doesn’t, put it back and try something else. Feel free to do this several times.

Happy National Poetry Month! Any other questions?

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