The Cruelest Month: Introducing the Reluctant Reader

What better way to celebrate National Poetry Month than making someone who doesn’t like poetry read a lot of poetry?

I can count the number of poems that I know by heart on one finger. One of my middle school language arts teachers, Mr. Phoenix — his real name — had assigned us the task of memorizing one poem, and reciting it in front of the class. This was the apex of a month-long unit that spanned the entire range of English-language verse.

If you don’t count my second-grade Haiku Month and the two weeks in senior AP English when we read The Waste Land, it comprises the only serious, sustained education I’ve ever had in the art of poetry.

wastelandPhoto courtesy of Chris Beckett

Others grappled with Shelley or Poe or Keats: either they were more ambitious than I was, or they never made it past the first few pages of our standard-issue poetry anthology. Me, I picked Wallace Rice’s “Battle-Song of the Oregon.” Here was the only poem I could find at the library that had a subject that I cared about, namely battleships.

That’s right, no late-night poetry slams in college, no rapturous evenings spent reading Shakespeare’s sonnets to a lover. Not so much as a double-take at the epic poems that leavened the writings of some of my favorite sci-fi and fantasy authors, from McCaffrey to Jacques to Zelazny. I once carried a copy of Leaves of Grass to a temp job every day for a month, just to make sure people knew that I was serious about other things than temping. I never once made it past page five.

Rhyming and versification, I believed, was a performance, a prop for poseurs and English teachers exclusively. For me, it had no place outside of karaoke night and standardized testing. In all other situations, I believed myself happier without it than with it.

In the interest of transparency, here are the main things I didn’t like about poetry:

  • I spent almost all of my time in school discussing the mechanics of poetry (rhyme scheme, genre, etc.) instead of things like meaning and symbolism, which put the entire enterprise on par with D’Nealian handwriting and sentence diagramming;
  • I have never heard anyone recite a poem in a way that wasn’t anything but ridiculous in one way or another (overly affected, stumbling and ricky-ticky, T.S. Eliot);
  • I have only come across biographies and profiles of poets who are the unappealing, tortured-obsessive type, as if being a literary Kardashian (without the money) is the only thing worth saying about most poets;
  • I associate poetry with boring self-pity, thanks to a decade of maudlin Xanga entries, Livejournal posts, and Facebook status updates;
  • Stephen Burt, crowned poetry’s “kingmaker” by The New York Times, once tweeted that an essay that I wrote about book reviews “unfortunately recommends turning everything negative into a trend piece.”

In my mind, you could collapse all that sentiment into one simple statement: “I don’t like poetry.”

And yet. I’ve consumed buckets of the stuff in translation. Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris, and all that, and you’ll just have to take my word for it that I didn’t even need to open a tab to Google for that . I have a two-year-old Odyssey and a five-year-old Beowulf and even a decade-old Divine Comedy sitting in on my shelf. I’ve hung on to them, like fine scotches, when I’ve let dozens of pulp novels and textbooks and even an occasional Work of Serious Literature go over the years.

This winter, I started to wonder about all that. What if there wasn’t a difference between the Martials and Dantes and the Eliots and Ginsbergs? What if I was just too bloody-minded about things like narrative and clarity of expression — what if I’d walled myself off from the transporting joys of poetry by being too literal about literature? What if it was just the cultural froth surrounding verse that’s turning me off — that there was nothing wrong with me or the poems per se?

On a whim, I picked up the bestselling book How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry by the award-winning poet and academic Edward Hirsch. And in it I found a lot of advice about the best places to read poetry (alone in bed! at night in the woods!) and a lot of testimony about how poetry is the result of a poet tapping the deepest and most primordial depths of the subconscious, emotional mind (for instance, how The Waste Land was the result of “rude unknown psychic material” or how a successful poem is supposed to engender an entire catalog of extreme emotions). In other words, quite a bit of the sort of messianic puffery that turned me off to the whole enterprise in the first place.

But underpinning that whole thing was Hirsch’s conviction that there was a kind of communion going on between poet and reader. One that defies explanation despite the many metaphors lobbed at it. One that, ultimately, is a kind of literary Potter Stewart test: no one can tell you what it is, so I guess you just know it when you read it.

Throw caution to the wind — cast aside that critical apparatus and just read the damn things! I could get behind that. And the most wonderful thing about Hirsch’s book is that it includes, in large part or in full, dozens of poems from a variety of writers, so I could do just that. And for every poem I found to be histrionic or dead on the page, I could read another one that made me think, That was pretty good. Combined with the little explanations and enthusiasms that Hirsch weaves throughout the book, it made me realize that I did enjoy poems and could even make my way through a poetry anthology without the aid of vodka tonics.

If nothing else, it inspired me to go on a sort of poetry binge, just in time for April, which as luck would have it, is Poetry Month. And that’s what I’m going to report on in this column — my attempt to read seriously, for the first time and without a teacher’s (metaphorical) whip at my back, a bunch of poetry. I can’t promise I will like any or all of it, but I can promise that I’m approaching it with a more open mind than ever before. Maybe this time, it’ll stick.

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.