Why Read Poetry?

_____ Many people approach writing with a rather cavalier "no sense, no fear" attitude. "After all," they ask, "how tough can mastering the written word be?"

_____ Answer: Very. So tough, in fact, that most cultures, including many advanced ones, never managed it.

_____ "Yes, but I already know the basics of writing: grammar, spelling, punctuation, syntax. How tough can writing poetry be? After all, it's just writing."

_____ Poetry involves writing just as figure skating involves standing up.

_____ If you have spent more than a few days in a workshop environment as a new poet you will have heard the advice: "Read a lot of poetry!" Along with "Show, don't tell!" this is undoubtedly the most common advice given to neophyte poets. Indeed, the only slight variation on this theme comes when experienced sources specify: "Read a lot of modern poetry!"

_____ "But why should I bother to read poetry?" you may ask. "I am here to write poetry and to have it read by others, not to read the stuff myself!"

_____ The problem with the first part of the statement, "I am here to write poetry", comes in the second: having it read by others. They won't.

_____ "Why not?" you might ask.

_____ For the same reason that, unless it is your child out there on the ice, you would much rather watch the magnificent Midori Ito than a first time figure skater.

_____ "Wait a minute. Are you saying that I write bad poetry without even seeing any of my work?"

_____ Are you saying, without seeing them skate, that a first timer is likely on par with Midori Ito?

_____ "I'll have you know that there are those, including some from outside my immediate family, who like my poetry as it is."

_____ Good for you! Now imagine how much more they will like it once you know a few nifty, crowd-pleasing techniques. Without such tools at your command you may soon be regarded as the rodless wretch standing on the riverbank trying to catch dinner by screaming "Here, fishie!"

_____ Bear in mind, too, that most novices try to write for (and resonate with) people who are most like themselves. In this case, that means writing poetry for people who don't read poetry.

_____ Without reading a lot of poetry:
  • You won't know that "good" and "bad" even exist. You might delude yourself into believing that it is "all a matter of taste". Do you actually believe that an experienced poetry reader cannot spot a glaring qualitative difference between your work and Shakespeare's? Or Cohen's? Or Heaney's? Or Garcia Lorca's?

  • You might never learn that there are subjects and perspectives beyond your own fascinating self.

  • Your ungainly attempts may end up being the closest thing to poetry you'll ever encounter. That is just sad.

  • You won't know what poetry you like as a reader.
_____ "Well, what difference does it make what kind of poetry I like to read if I don't read poetry? Duh!"

_____ Because you are the world's first line of defence against bad poetry. Your poetry, in this case. As a writer you must be your own harshest critic. You have to learn to read your work with some "distance"--enough objectivity to ask yourself:

_____ "How would a reader regard this piece?"

_____ As things stand, you cannot answer this vital question simply because (Duh!) you aren't a reader.

_____ "So you think that reading a lot of poetry will make me a good poet?"

_____ Far from it. You will also need to read about some of the basics of the craft. Here are some suggested primers on technique:

'Poetry Handbook' by Mary Oliver
'The Poet's Companion' by Kim Addonzio and Dorianne Laux
'The Discovery of Poetry' by Frances Mayes
'In the Palm of your Hand' by Steve Kowitt
'Understanding Poetry' by Cleanth Brooks & Robert Penn Warren
'Sound and Sense' by Laurence Perrine
'The Redress of Poetry' by Seamus Heaney

Or, for a lighter approach:

'The Portable Poetry Workshop: A Field Guide to Poetic Technique' by Jack Myers
'Poetry for Dummies' by John Timpane

Here are some online resources:

Gazebo Poetry Lessons

The Poetry Free-For-All Blurbs of Wisdom


_____ "Okay, so I read this stuff and then I'll be a good poet, right?"

_____ Hardly. But if you do study the basics of this art form you will, at least, know what a good poet is. And what good poetry is. Years of practice later you may, if you have the talent and drive, become a competent poet.

_____ "That's depressing!"

_____ Or an exciting challenge, depending on how you view it.

_____ "But won't reading all this stuff affect my style?"

_____ Unless you accept skating on your ankles as a "style", you don't have one yet. A "style" is something you will develop after you have mastered the fundamentals. Children don't speak with an accent until after they learn a language.

_____ "But I don't want to write like one of these stuffy, sterile academics!"

_____ Then don't. Write like a non-academic. Write like a free spirit. A vagabond. A rebel. Whatever. But learn to do so well.

_____ You owe at least that much to your readers. Agreed?

Some Reasons For New Poets to Read Poetry
  1. It is enjoyable--an acquired taste well worth cultivating.
  2. It will reveal whether our own approach, language and themes are fresh or cliché.
  3. It will teach us techniques that we can adapt into our own work.
  4. It allows us to empathize with our readers. We can answer questions like:

    • Are "writer-centered" poems interesting to [us as] readers?
    • Are well-worn phrases ("cliches") interesting the thousandth time we read them?
    • Are details ("images") more digestible and enjoyable than the whole ("abstractions")?
    • Do we enjoy being lectured to in a poem?
    • Do we like rants?
    • Do we prefer poems that spell out their moral or "fables" that let us discern the message on our own?
    • Do we like cryptic poems where we cannot discern the storyline (let alone its significance)?
    • Do we like archaic language? Contorted syntax? Gibberish?
    • When we read poems aloud (as we should) do we prefer that the words trip off our tongues or on our tongues?

  5. Someone else's poem might inspire us to write one on a similar theme.
  6. We'll learn that there is a whole universe beyond our navels.
  7. Only after carefully examining what works for us as readers can we can critique other poets' work.
  8. People will take our opinions more seriously in poetry discussions and critiques.
  9. By reading good stories told well or badly we can appreciate the importance of the "telling" half of "storytelling".
  10. We'll understand why experienced readers ignore--or worse, ridicule--our poems.


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Tips on Poetry
Click here to read about poetry basics at PoemTips.
Take the Poetry Test
Click here to test your knowledge of poetry basics at PoemTest.
Popular Poetry Quiz
Click here to test your knowledge of popular 20th Century poetry. Experienced poets may find a few surprises here.
Take the Poetry Ripcord Test
Click here to test your understanding of why discerning readers stop reading poems at The Poetry Ripcord Test Site.
Rules of Poetry
Click here to see Dennis Hammes's wonderful satire: Rules of Poetry.
rulez 4 aspiring ~poets~
Click here to see Peter J Ross's brilliant tongue-in-cheek rulez 4 aspiring ~poets~.
Newsgroup Regulars
Click here to see a a description of newsgroup regulars.
The Official a.a.p.c. FAQ
Click here to go to the official alt.arts.poetry.comments FAQ.
The Book of Trolls
Click here to see The Book of Trolls.

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