29 Sep

Guest Post: "For All the Haters" by Elizabeth Dunn-Ruiz

Posted in Craft, DIY MFA, Poetry, Writing

 Today we have a guest post by the lovely Elizabeth Dunn-Ruiz.  Elizabeth was a classmate of mine during the MFA and writes beautiful poetry as well as heartbreaking teen literature.  She is also poetry editor of Verbal Pyrotechnics, a literary magazine dedicated exclusively to teen literature.  So if you have poetry that appeals to a teen audience, feel free to check out the submissions page and send it her way.  For more about Elizabeth, visit her blog at: A Lil’ Sumpin’ Sumpin’.  And now here’s Elizabeth’s take on why people hate on poetry.

Some people are scared of sharks, others of heights, an intruder in the night. Sure, a fearfulness of all of these things make sense; each could kill you after all. But why, then, are so many writers of fiction afraid of poetry? What has a poem ever done to you? Huh?

Okay, maybe it’s bored you, confused you, made you feel something you weren’t prepared to feel, but it certainly has not killed you! In fact, I’d argue that some poems are more scared of you than you are of them. Like this one, called “Poem that Begs for Reassurance”, by Peter Davis*:

My experience with the world around me is that I either feel it’s awful, or I feel that it is great. Right now I feel like this poem is awful. I feel like I am awful. I feel like an outcast in the literary world. Nobody reviews my work. As far as I can tell, nobody really talks about me. They do, but it’s never enough. I’m not besieged with e-mails soliciting my poetry. I keep waiting for something to happen. I mean, this is a good poem. Other people seem to have so much going on. I read their bio notes and think, “Well, jeez, how do they all do it?” I say to my wife, “Honey, I always feel a few steps behind. How can I do all of that in this poem?” Some of them maintain blogs with numerous links and a lot of daily hits. Others don’t even have blogs! All around me poets are winning prizes and being included in anthologies like The Best American Poetry. Some at very young ages. Some of these people, if they don’t already have tenure-line teaching positions, are very strong candidates for tenure-line teaching positions.

    Now, before that familiar fear bubbles to the surface, turns itself into rage and makes you shout What? That’s not even a poem! Stop, and breathe. And try and keep in mind that a poem is simply compressed language used to express emotion or ideas.

Perhaps in high school some archaic, convoluted, and important poem was paraded in front of you so that you–in a role of simple spectator–could analyze it, elucidate its virtues and confirm its place in the canon. The teacher didn’t ask you to get in there and walk around with the poem, hold its hand, listen to its secrets and share yours in return. No, you were just supposed to coolly observe it, as if it were the other, then write a five paragraph essay, sans  the word “I”.  Maybe it was then that you decided that poetry, like AP Calculus or showering in the locker room, was just not for you.

Billy Collins, America’s Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, in conjunction with the Library of Congress, created Poetry 180, a collection of poems to be read aloud, one a day for all 180 days of the school year, in an attempt to demystify, de-stress-ify, de-analyze-ify poetry and help us all simply experience and, perhaps even, appreciate poems. The first poem in this series is his, and, fittingly, it is called “Introduction to Poetry” and I think it is awesome.  He writes:

I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

We have been conditioned to think there is a right and a wrong response to a poem, that it can only mean one thing, when in fact that is not true at all.  When the pressure of analysis is removed, I think many of us who claim to dislike Poetry-with-a-capital-P are actually surprised to find that many poems are you know, quite likeable. 

I find that reading a few poems in a variety of styles before I sit down to write can help me generate ideas and approach my language differently. Poetry compresses ideas, emotions, and images into very few words and this is a skill that all writers can benefit from.  Look at this poem by Jane Kenyon:


I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise. I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach. It might

have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know,

it will be otherwise.

In it she compresses a life into a few short images. The first introduces us to a character, a domestic setting, and, through the use of one key word, “strong”, indicates that she is grateful for her current health. Her use of repetition emphasizes the idea that we all make choices about how to live life. The slight modification to the repeated sentence powerfully implies that the speaker appreciates the choices she has made and the life that she leads as a result of those choices.

The content of this poem could have been the subject of a short story or novel, but Kenyon seems to want the reader to focus on the simple moments of a life and so she uses simple diction and sentence structure. The moments she describes, just like the poem itself, are quick and could be easily overlooked, but she is asking the reader to be attentive to the simple moments that make up a life. This poem illustrates that the structure is the message too.

As you approach your own work it is important to ask your self if your container is the right size for your content and if it’s not, adjust accordingly. You would never pack your son’s sandwich in a suitcase and send him off to school, now would you?

Another reason to read poetry is the playfulness with which many poets approach language.  Not to say that a poem is any less literary when it employs whimsy, simply that it is important to remember that language is not just about ideas, but is just as much about sound.  Take this line from Thomas Sayers Ellis’ “Presidential Blackness”, a serious poem about race and language, “…a new infinite alphabet pours from the pores of the poor…”. The cleverness of the wordplay is going to make this line jump out. It will stick with the reader because, well, it sounds good and it is fun to say. I encourage you to read your work aloud or ask a friend to read it aloud to you; consider revising anytime you need to take a breath or your friend stumbles. Listen for interesting juxtapositions and pay attention to your sentence structure. Just like my mother always said, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it, that matters.”

*I’d imagine that Peter Davis and this poem are presently feeling reassured, as he was just in town to launch the Best American Poetry 2010, in which he has four (wonderful) poems.


Comments on this post

  1. Janice says:

    I really enjoyed your post, Elizabeth.

    I’ve started to read poetry to help with sentence rhythm and word choice. I admit, I had stayed far, far away from anything remotely poetry like until I read The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson. The main character, Lennie, leaves poems everywhere and anywhere – the beauty of the words amazes me over and over.

    1. salarsenッ says:

      I like how you mention that we've been conditioned in how we interpret poetry. I've always felt that poetry was meant to move each of us the way it does–meaning differently, like we're all different. I can remember a teacher telling me my interpretation of a certain poem was wrong. I'm sorry, but it didn't hit me the way it hit her.

      Poetry makes me look at life in an altered way. ";-)

      1. Caroline Starr Rose says:

        I so wish I'd known about Poetry 180 while I was teaching. I made my own Poem of the Day book to share with my kids. This would have been brilliant.

        Maybe I need one for myself!

        1. Ghenet says:

          Great post, Elizabeth! I'm guilty of once thinking that poetry was scary and unapproachable, but I've since realized it's not. I definitely want to read more poetry. Thanks for all of your suggestions. I really enjoyed the poems in your post 🙂

          1. A Lil Sumpin' Sumpin' says:

            Thanks all! I'm glad you enjoyed these words 🙂

            1. A Lil Sumpin' Sumpin' says:

              Oh, and Janice, I agree; The Sky is Everywhere is an amazing book! I wish I could afford to buy copies and just pass them out on the street!

              1. Natasha says:

                Really nice post. I've always loved Kenyon and Collins.

                And this is great advice: 'As you approach your own work it is important to ask your self if your container is the right size for your content and if it’s not, adjust accordingly.'


                1. Kerryn Angell says:

                  I can't believe I skipped this post. It was only reading the summary in this week's review post that I've come back to pay it attention. I've been avoiding poetry because at school the meaning of poetry was drilled into us. I was scared that I wouldn't understand what they poem was trying to convey. Now I've looked up Poetry 180 and added The Sky Is Everywhere to my Goodreads to-read shelf. I want to reintroduce myself to poetry! Thanks, Elizabeth.

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