“What Got You Into Poetry?”

What really got me into poetry in a meaningful way was as a tool of self-expression. I love to paint, too, but it’s very difficult to express or explore certain ideas in painting. You can capture emotions, symbols, poses, but it’s very difficult to explore ideas any further without an explanation. I got into poetry because it’s a lot easier to describe very lofty, abstract ideas and build on them, explore them in a very compact way. In high school we had a great English teacher who led a poetry unit, and I remember that was my real introduction to poetry beyond just half-scribbles. He introduced us to a lot of older poets like William Blake, and that set my expectation from the beginning. Because of that my idea of poetry going in was that it should be a silent music- I remember disliking very blunt poems because they didn’t have the musical quality I assumed they should have to be “good.”  But I learned better soon, and as we read more and more varied work in that class I dropped that pretension. What changed is that I realized that the content is so much more important than the sonic quality, that the symbolism, the art of the words makes poetry more than rhyming alone. Back then I also had no idea that poetry could be cathartic, a tool to process events, and that aspect really let me get into writing. The fact that you could write about your own experiences, not just distant, impersonal truths let me drop the artificial rules I’d fabricated for my own work.

One moment I almost stopped writing poems was after my high school teacher tried to have us read the Odyssey, back when I still thought all poems had to be musically lyrical. It was presented to us as the classic of classics, the metric by which all work was judged, but it was so dense and cryptic I couldn’t read it. I almost gave up then, before we branched off into contemporary work.

2 Replies to ““What Got You Into Poetry?””

  1. There’s a lot of rich ideas to interrogate here, Nick; thanks for sharing. I’d encourage you to ponder what it is that makes a poem cryptic: in the case of the Odyssey, for instance, it might less be about how it’s written than how it’s connected to a world and a worldview that we can’t access easily – we’re too remote from it. I’m wondering what that would then mean for the way we write poems today (and I’m thinking of your workshop poem this week): when can we allow ourselves something that could be cryptic now or in future (ophiuchus?) or do we always have a primary duty to content and to explanation? What does the symbolic do for content and the cryptic?

    I also want to encourage you, especially given the focus of this semester’s class, to think about painting as it might either be a source for poetry or another way to think about poetry. There’s a rich vein of ekphrastic poetry – poetry based on visual art – that you might consider exploring in this regard…and producing yourself?

  2. That was encouraging to hear how you had an influential teacher that truly engaged you with literature. Perhaps I was too dull to hear or my teachers didn’t have the ability to engage us as yours did. As you say that art also feels like I means of expression, I am curious if you also had influential art teachers as well? I am curious what it would look like to translate a painting into a poem. Depending on the kind of art that you like, trying to duplicate concepts from the art world in a literary form may be a worthy challenge.

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