Example poetry

Poetry for people who are unsure of poetry

Too many people feel intimidated by poetry, says Joanne Diaz, J94 – and with a podcast, she hopes to change that by making poetry more accessible.

Diaz, professor of English at Wesleyan University in Illinois, and Abram Van Engen, professor of English at the University of Washington, began the Poetry for all podcast in fall 2020. It is now ranked among the top 10% of the most listened to podcasts in the world, according to Listen Notes.

In each episode, Diaz and Van Engen read a poem, discuss it in detail – revealing the meaning and poetic methods – and reread it. They don’t shy away from tough jobs. In one episode, they confront John Milton, the 17th-century author of lost paradise– and make his work eminently accessible. And they also shine a light on the poetry of the present moment, reading and discussing verses by Amanda Gorman, the first National Youth Poet Laureate, who read during President Biden’s inauguration.

“We wanted to create a podcast series that would be useful for someone who is a bit ambivalent about poetry, maybe someone who hasn’t read a poem since high school or college. They walk their dog for 15 minutes and they want to be transported during that short period of time, ”says Diaz. “These are the people for whom we made this podcast. It helps us frame our questions for each other and our conversation about each poem. “

Diaz is the author of two books of poetry and winner of the 2022 Kemp Foundation Award for Excellence in Teaching at Illinois Wesleyan, where she has taught since 2008.

She says her undergraduate stint at Tufts directly led to her life as a poet and teacher. Poetic writing workshops with Marie howe and Deborah digs were inspiring. “They taught me everything about contemporary poetry from the start and provided me with role models on how to live a creative life that inspired me,” she says.

Clumps now recently spoke with Diaz about what poetry means to her and how we can all learn life lessons from the words of others.

Clumps now: Are there things that can be expressed in poetry that cannot be expressed in prose?

I’m not sure if I can make this division – some of my favorite poems are those that cross the line between prose and poetry, and show me the excitement of both.

One book that I have taught several times over the past few years is that by Claudia Rankine Citizen: An American Lyric– the title seems to promise a book of poems, but it is also classified as a book of essays. Some of the poems look like poems on the page, but many look more like essays, sort of a hybrid form.

This flexibility in structure allows it to examine a lot of historical and political ground in really powerful ways. In a podcast episode, Abram and I discuss in detail this line between poetry and prose when we focus on “A4 Gate” by Naomi Shihab Nye. Most of my favorite poets walk this line between lyrics and storytelling.

That said, I love lyric poets who know how to create a snapshot of emotion as part of a sonnet or villanelle, or just a few little tercets – a three-line poetic unit – on the page. What’s beautiful about the sonnet, for example, is that it’s a portable, easy-to-remember, song-like utterance that gives you a glimpse into deep human feelings.

A sonnet can be incredibly complex, even if the poet aims to achieve the clarity of a bell. For example, each of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets explores desire, mortality, the passage of time, and literary reputation in various ways, and each individual sonnet is like its own machine or organism.

I don’t know if there is a poetic form in English that is more resilient and appealing in this way. Perhaps one powerful, iconic photograph can do it. With language, I think only poetry can do it.

Do you have any particular poets that you keep coming back to all the time that mean a lot to you?

There are two poets I am thinking of. One is Phillip Levine, he’s a master storyteller, but also a master lyricist. No one in American poetry has been more sensitive and attentive to the lives of ordinary workers.

We don’t write enough about work, we spend all of our days doing it, and yet we don’t write enough. I find that so strange, and so does he. He was one of my professors at New York University. When I read his poems, I hear his voice and his sensitivity.

The other contemporary poet I keep coming back to again and again is David Kirby. He’s probably the happiest poet I’ve ever read, and it’s not easy to achieve. I think it’s actually more difficult to write about joy than grief.

He is also very good at creating arguments in his poems. For years, I thought poems were meant to be mostly meditative and descriptive, but I didn’t really understand poems as arguments too. David Kirby is very good at creating these arguments and doing it quite convincingly.

Certain poems seem to me deliberately obscure, difficult to understand for ordinary people. How do you teach students – and the whole world – to dig into, understand, and care about poetry?

I am often frustrated with poems too! I don’t always understand poems right away. In fact, that’s one of our goals with this podcast. Not only do we want to show that poets are often in conversation with each other, but we too as readers need conversation to deepen the meaning of poems. With each episode, Abram and I hope to show that we continue to learn from each other, and it never stops.

The obscurity that you describe is very present in some poems: Land of waste [a 1922 poem by T.S. Eliot] need so many footnotes for anyone to access them; and the avant-garde poems of many other modernists like Hilda Doolittle — HD — can challenge a quick reading. These are poems that require different attention, and yes, initially these poems can be difficult for us.

But other poems are immediately accessible and still contain layers of meaning. For example, when you read “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman, you can see how eager she is to invite us all into the poem. Wallace Stevens once wrote that “the poem is the cry of its occasion”, and Amanda Gorman’s poem is a perfect example of this cry.

It’s like a muscle. If you read more poems over and over again, it gets easier. When I teach my study of English Poetry, 1500-1700, students just can’t access the early poems – Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard. There is nothing in the worldview of these individuals that has anything to do with students.

But by the time they read dozens and dozens of poems, they see how these people talk to each other. They see how these people compete and try to outdo each other.

They see how, when Shakespeare writes “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun,” he is writing it because hundreds of poets have compared their mistresses’ eyes to the sun. He’s got to outdo these other poets in a way.

There are so many kinds of poetry for so many kinds of occasions that if one poem doesn’t work for you as a reader another surely will, for they are made for so many kinds of purposes.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at [email protected].


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