I am about to admit something that may seem sacrilegious coming from a reader, writer, and admirer of poetry, but I’m going to take a deep breath and say it anyway. Ready? Poetry is really hard to read. More specifically, poetry is really hard to read in large doses.
I was sparked to this topic by Daniel Handler’s, otherwise known as Lemony Snicket, commentary in the January issue of Poetry. His short essay is titled Happy, Snappy, Sappy. My favorite part of the commentary is as follows:
“I read two or three poems by Campbell McGrath in a row, and I’m infused with joy at the enthusiasm of his breadth. I read seven or eight, and it is truly admirable that he can maintain a consistency of tone and yet always be surprising. Ten or twelve and that just might be enough Campbell McGrath for a little bit, no offense. Eighteen poems without a break and, seriously, Campbell, shut the fuck up. What to do?”
I love poetry. I love reading poetry and I will read anything that anyone recommends or lays in front of me (I used to be this way with fiction until one of my students chirped “You should read Twilight!”). However, I prefer not to read the bricks of “Collected Poems.” I know a lot of these feelings stem from my academic endeavours into poetry, which started when I was in college and later in graduate school. Get ready, all you teachers and professors and poets who teach. I’m going to give you a valuable piece of advice: When your young, innocent, doe eyed students approach you after an especially thrilling discussion of Robert Lowell or Emily Dickinson or T.S. Eliot, be kind. When they ask you, with unbridled enthusiasm practically popping out of their skinny jeans (don’t worry, I wear them too), what poems they should read by Lowell or Dickinson or Eliot, DO NOT recommend the collected works. Why? Read below.
There is nothing more daunting to a reader then to pick up Robert Lowell’s collected works. Trust me, I’m not picking on Lowell, but I associate him with this particular subject because what I’ve just advised you not to do is exactly what was done to me. Naturally as a Bishop fan, I discovered Lowell and when I asked one of my poetry mentors to recommend some poems, he just said “read the collected.” Umm, have you seen the “collected?” I know that serious readers and poets may scoff at this assertion. “Well, if she were serious about poetry she would immerse herself in Lowell. She would drink it in. She would memorize every poem. She would paper her walls with his words. She would tattoo “Skunk Hour” over her clavicle and revel in the pain.” Uh, no.
I did copy many of Lowell’s poems in my journals. I studied them. I can recall many lines. I did revel in their language, but I was almost turned off by that book. It was too big and daunting and at the time I was enrolled in a low residency program where I was teaching 6 sections of English Composition, living with my boyfriend and 4 other guys, and trying to write my own poems. Throwing the collected works of Robert Lowell on top of that was a bit of a reach.
Do your students a favor. When they come to you in love with Plath or Dove or Oliver or Frost or Wright, recommend specific poems. Hell, if you’re really feeling generous, copy a few out of your books and make them a little packet. They will thank you for this gentle introduction and when they are ready, they will take a deep breath, walk into a bookstore or library and pull that brick off the shelf.