Everybody hates the guy who tells them how to eat. Except it’s not usually a guy. Usually, it’s a conscientious, often neurotic mother, who while having very good reasons to monitor her family’s needs decides that everyone else in the world need her wisdom too. She may criticize your gluten, your sugar, your GMOs or your 99 cents a pound hot dogs. Her answer to everything is based on her research, her scouring of local farmers and her refrigerator full of raw dairy. And she’ll be happy to tell you what you’re doing wrong.
I’m going to be that mom today. I’m going to say, you should read more poems. It will be good for you.
Poetry is portable literature. Poetry is seasoned metaphor. Poetry is the literary equivalent of a take-out gourmet sandwich shop. Poetry is a vitamin-packed smoothie. Taste one! Sample it! Savor it!
What kinds of poetry should you read? Read anything you love. Subscribe to a poem website and get their daily poems. Commit them to memory. Start with the familiar and move on.
Memorize all you can. Memorize it for the sake of the discipline of it, of committing something to your soul, of tasting the words as they come off the tongue, of subconsciously realizing that these poems were put together with great care and craftsmanship. This is Longfellow! Tennyson! These aren’t slapdash inklings of a self-absorbed teen. This is something you can carry with you.
What do you take from a poem? If you have the literary nutrition of a poem daily, the you can appreciate rhythm, imagery, metaphor, meaning, communication, pathos, story telling and good craftsmanship. Analyze it while you thinking of it, much in the same way you would analyze a novel. What is the poet trying to say? Why did he make the choices that he made? What emotions are you experiencing as a result of the poem? What insight do you have that you didn’t have before? Why was this so important to this poet? What literary elements, like alliteration and repetition and assonance are used here? What does this poet want his reader to take from it?
I make my kids memorize poems. I pick long, rhythmic poems that have some sort of concrete elements to them, like the repetition in Charge of the Light Brigade or the story described in Paul Revere’s Ride or Ballad of the Boston Tea Party, and then Casey At The Bat just because it is fun and perfect for opening day. We’ve memorized William Blake, Robert Frost, Robert Louis Stevenson, tons of Jack Prelutsky and Mary Ann Hoberman. I knew I was on to something when my ten year old son looked at my bookshelf and said, “You have the complete works of Emily Dickinson, but you don’t have Rudyard Kipling!”
(Need a website to go to? Try PoemHunter. It’s easy to manage & create your favorites list!
The study of poetry is, sadly, a neglected one. And in today’s literature, a good dose of this isn’t such a bad idea. Novelists can benefit from the lessons taught by the great poets. We’re so busy making our characters likable and our plot points believable that we leave out the metaphor, the pathos, the art.
Poets also worked on their poems for months. I think in our rush to self-publish that we forget the necessity of the time required for good craftsmanship. As long as we don’t take a lesson from Coleridge and use drug use to create a Kubla Khan, (which I think should be an exception, not a rule.)
I think we’re so busy sometimes worrying about being clear that we make it too easy on our readers. A little nuance, a little subtlety, a little mystery a challenge may do them some good. We can learn this from great poems. Will we lose readers? Maybe. But my books weren’t for everyone anyway.
Why do we need it poetry? Because it is one of the easiest and most accessible forms of art out there. Writers who savor poetry become better writers.
We shouldn’t let our own voice sink to the lowest common denominator. We should, instead, nurture it with great words like those found in the poems of the past and present. We imitate what we have before us. If all we read is junk literature, the latest pulp novel, a sappy, uninspired romance, then our work will could potentially be stuck in the pedestrian and the common. One way to fight this is to surround ourselves with the wholesome, the healthy and the literarily nutritious.
Read poems every day. Your mind and your words will thank you.