by Britton Gildersleeve
I’m working on the materials for a poetry workshop I’m teaching in the fall. The course’s title—say it with tongue firmly in cheek—was going to be “So you think you don’t like poetry: On words that sing & dance for a living.” Unfortunately, that’s not the title going out to prospective participants. The part about not liking poetry—the whole point!—was cut. Sigh.
Initially the class was to be (rather obviously) geared to those who have reservations about poetry and everything about it: the forms, rhyme, the pretentious attitude of too many poets and poetry profs, the abstruse content, the SYMBOLISM. As if reading poetry were a kind of exercise in translating a little-known dialect.
I introduced the idea of such a class to my adult ed class this past spring, and even in a demographic self-chosen for learning, at least half the participants freely admitted they didn’t know/get/like poetry. I suspect several more agreed, as they didn’t raise a hand on like or dislike (this despite recent research showing a 5% increase in poetry reading from 2012 to 2017). Also in spite of the excellent case the Academy of American Poets makes for poetry’s excellent fit with today’s social media culture.
Still not a draw for at least half my class. They cited all kinds of reasons when I pressed them. See above.
I know intellectually that poetry isn’t fun for most folks. But it is for me, and it used to be for almost everyone, back when we were all small. When we read doggerel, children’s classics (Robert Louis Stevenson! Edward Lear! Lewis Carroll! Kipling!), limericks, and all, we loved it. My five-year-old grandson adores rhyme and rhythm (and much of poetry is all about those). He’s more into narrative poetry than lyric; since he’s been able to ask, he’s wanted stories in verse. At age two, he wanted me to make a poem about missing his parents when they were on a short overnight trip. Now, three years later, he wants rhyming books. On robots, true, but it’s still poetry!
What happens on the road from kindergarten to adulthood? Where do we lose our delight in language play, our wonder at how an image can open up an experience like a flower blossoming? How can I help prospective students—most of them older than I am—recapture that sense of play and magic?
I know enough NOT to begin with the classics we learned in middle school and high school, even in college. No Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson the first week. No modernists. Nothing that smacks of tests we crammed for years ago. Nothing earlier than the late-20th century, for starters. We’ll probably begin with a poem I love to teach: Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry.” I want them to know immediately that this is NOT a class where we beat poems with hoses.
Please don’t misunderstand: We’ll certainly read some “harder” poems, as well. But in the same way you don’t begin to train for a triathlon by first running a marathon, we’re going to move gently into poetry. Besides, who says poetry has to be hard, anyway? Not everyone wants to read Eliot or Pound!
Can’t poetry be a letter, like the exchange of poems between Nimrod Literary Award winner Natalie Diaz and Ada Limón? These two poets use their incomparable talent and craft to do something amazing, creating a place where ideas and language fuse into the poetic equivalent of favrile glass, iridescent and new. Can’t it be a story, as so many poets—new and older—have spun for us? Former Nimrod poetry judge Pete Fairchild weaves together this thread and that image into a story of small-town baseball, and suddenly a nameless player in a small-town game becomes an icon we all know well. A story, in poetry, about baseball and lost dreams and the thoughtless grace of youth.
So, we’ll look at new (lesser-known) poets as well as big names. Yes, we’ll do Carlos Williams. We’ll also do Merwin, who was a Nimrod poetry judge one year. And we’ll do Robin Coste Lewis (another Nimrod judge) and Nikki Giovanni—both consummate artists—writing both from the tradition of poetry and from outside its traditional borders. We’ll read both Robert Hayden (grossly under-read, in my passionate opinion) and Naomi Shihab Nye, Joseph Bruchac and Robert Hass. We may even take a look at old poets—haiku from Bashō, a sonnet from Keats. But we’ll be looking at them not through the lens of the “poetic tradition,” but through the eyes of readers who are hungry for the graceful dance of words, the play of images on a page.
What I hope is that at least one of the poets we read in the workshop will do for the participants in this informal 6-week workshop what so many Nimrod poets have done for me: ignite over and over again a passion for words, and the many ways they sing and dance both on the page and in our heads. A passion only satisfied by reading more poetry.
Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.