These are commonly expressed sentiments when the subject of poetry arises. The reality is, yes, poetry doesn’t sell as much as fiction and nonfiction; however, someone is buying those poetry collections, and it’s not just libraries and school systems. There are also loads of poetry contests for poetry collections as well as single poems. People are still reading; they just may be using electronic media to do it. Ebook sales on Kindle, IPad, and other popular devices are increasing. In addition, I believe the study and writing of poetry is essential to becoming an effective writer in any genre.
Poetry is confusing for those readers who fail to understand that reading a poem is a concentrated emotional, visceral experience. You don’t read a poem the way you would read a story or an essay. You feel it, savor it. It is pure imagery intended to evoke responses on many levels in the reader. It’s akin to a poet’s attempt at a Vulcan mind meld (I know, not a very elegant image). In communicating, we attempt to convey our message to an audience so that the audience understands its meaning just as we do. Of course, there are so many factors that can distort the meaning of that message. Certainly, a poem requires focused reading as often as needed to have the experience intended by the poet. We’ve all learned about the many tools of poetry, among them rhyme, rhythm, meter, imagery, assonance, consonance, simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, etc. What is essential to using these tools is that they do create emotional, visceral imagery in the reader, and the reader is richer for the experience.
The South Korean film Poetry, written and directed by Lee Chang-Dong, is in itself a poem. We don’t make films like this in the U.S., and I urge you to see this beautiful work. The main character, 65-year old grandmother Mija, has many challenges: the onset of Alzheimer’s; raising a moody teenage grandson on a limited income; dealing with the involvement of this grandson in a crime that led to a young girl’s suicide; and making choices that will determine her grandson’s future as well as those of his five friends (click denverpost.com/movies/ci_17523583 for more on the plot and a good review of the film). Another of Mija’s challenges is to write a poem, something she has never done before. She keeps a notebook in which she records what are for her peak moments. Although she worries that she cannot write a poem, she eventually does.
When I taught, I would always start the year off with the study and writing of poetry. I believed that wherever my students were in their abilities and understanding, they would become better writers with this initial exposure to concrete imagery. With the experience of poetry and how words could “show” a feeling, a moment, an event, I hoped their prose writing would be richer and more expressive.
Like you, I read a lot of different authors, aware of how they affect me. I think all writers read with this awareness. One of the writers whose books I enjoy is James Lee Burke, two-time Edgar Award winner. Aside from his excellent plots and rich characters, he captures me with his lyrical imagery, elegiac tone, and the cadence of his stories. This author has the heart of a poet, yet his novels are definitely masculine. Right now, I’m reading Bitterroot. There are so many instances of wonderful imagery, it’s difficult to decide which ones to highlight:
- “…dissolving his Marine-issue tropicals into glowing threadworms.”
- “…his shoulders braided with sinew.”
- “Then the sun broke through the tree trunks on the ridge and lighted the meadows and woods and cliffs around us with a pinkness that made us involuntarily look up into the vastness of the Montana sky, as though the stars had been unfairly stolen from us.”
- “He was lantern-jawed, his eyes as empty and undefined by color as a desert sky, his skin brown from the sun and clean of tattoos.”
- “…were mountains that rose up blue and as jagged as tin against the sky, their saddles and peaks blazing with new snow.”
- “…their hooves powdering dust in the air, sawing their heads as they approached the fence.”
So does poetry have value? Yes! It raises our awareness of the peak moments in our own lives, and the study and writing of it enhances the prose we read and write.
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