Why do people dread poetry?

An English prof offers some thoughts on what an English degree does to poetry that basically makes people hate it.

It’s funny, because as I read this, I really thought the problem is with both the teaching of “English” and the teaching of “Creative Writing”. It’s two-fold: the academy (as English) teaches readers to search for hidden meanings and symbols and whatnot and (as Creative Writing) teaches writers to go with the flow and “experience” the muse and find their own meanings, etc. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

I just started an online poetry school where I teach practical craft–lining, rhythm, creating tension, turns, sound-bonding, form, etc.–but we often go through our lectures first as readers. We read a poem straight, decide on what it imparted, then take the poem apart to find out which pieces of craft helped make this poem more than the sum of its parts.

Then we use those pieces of craft as practice for making our own. A watchmaker can’t make their own watch until they’ve taken someone else’s apart to study how it works on a practical level. Why should that be any different for another art like poetry?

In class I ask: how do we take a reader from a state of distraction or mundanity (they’re on a work lunch, or it’s been a long day of kids and they’re sitting down after doing the dishes with everyone finally asleep) and lead them through to, at best, a transcendent experience, at worst, a new way of looking at an idea you once jotted down in a notebook?

Shouldn’t that sort of work/analysis be the job of the poet, not the reader? The reader should really just get to “experience” the moment, no? Much like a homeowner experiences and lives in a house, with the architect, engineers, and craftspeople having done the work of making it stand up and function as a shelter. Readers should be invited to search for deep layers and meanings, not required to. Joy and curiosity should lead them to look deeper, not a letter grade.

As an English professor, I will be the first to say that what happens in college classrooms is part of the problem (and perhaps what happens in high school classrooms is as well, but that’s something I’m less familiar with). I can see how the problem develops. My job is to help students learn how to be better readers and writers, and so it seems natural to focus on analysis, on breaking poems down into parts and searching for hidden meanings. I want them to learn the vocabulary necessary for understanding poetry — similes, rhyme schemes, alliteration, etc. — so they can get practice applying these terms and using them to find meaning. I want them to know — and my college wants them to know — how to write thesis statements and find evidence and form correct sentences and use quotations correctly.

Poetry is about experiencing language more than understanding it, it’s about playing with language rather than mastering it, it’s about creativity and expression rather than knowledge. These are not things we emphasize in our classrooms! Schools teach us how to take tests, how to learn facts, how to organize an argument, how to research — all good things, except perhaps for tests — but they aren’t as good at teaching us how to experience and enjoy.

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