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Rethinking Poetry

by Mary Laffey on 2024-04-03T14:34:54-05:00 | 0 Comments

It is a truth universally acknowledged that no one really likes poetry. The reasons are sound: poetry is hard to comprehend, it’s elitist, it’s kinda emo, and no one really tells you why it’s important, just that it is. Poetry isn’t taught well either, since we recycle the same darn Robert Frost poem over and over, and don’t explain how poems read differently than books. As a result, most people end up feeling ashamed that they didn’t understand the poem and, as a natural response, resolve to hate it. When “I got to the end and I didn’t get it” is the number one response from most students - isn’t that a sign that we need to change things?

I used to despite poetry in the same way people hate sushi - declaring it loudly and without concern for what other people thought. My teachers praised its complexity and nuanced meaning while I just stared uncomprehendingly at the words, willing them to try and talk to me. It wasn’t until college, when I had a truly wonderful Professor who taught us how to read poetry correctly, that I truly started to understand, and worse, like it. She said, “A poem is like a wounded animal. It’s wary of you, and it takes time for you to gain its trust. Only when you’ve spent a solid couple of minutes cooing at it will it dare to lick your hand.” A weird analogy to use, yes? But it’s true! Of all the “tips” to reading poetry that she taught me, these three are the most helpful. 

1. Words Matter

Unlike books, where you can whip through a sentence in a mere second, poetry takes a lot longer to understand because each word has been carefully chosen for a reason. Because the writer has less space to express themselves, they have to really choose their words wisely, which means every word in a poem matters. As a result, poems should be read slowly and repeatedly in order for students to really gain a healthy understanding.

2. Everyone Reads Poetry Differently

Oftentimes, poems tackle extremely complex ideas and images, leading everyone to gain something different from the overall message. There is no “right” way to interpret a poem, since everyone’s experience with it is different, and so there is never one concrete answer to what a poem means. Especially if you don’t understand a poem, that doesn’t reflect on your intelligence, but rather your empathic abilities. Rebeca Roach states that “In order to “do” poetry, we must remain open, vulnerable, and willing” to interpret and to feel. 

3. Poems Use Images

When you’re reading a story, there might be a line like this: She wiped at her eyes, smearing her makeup and trying hard to smile through the pain

But in a poem, to convey the same feeling, it might look more like this: Grimacing through black streaks of protection, she tries

Both sentences convey that this woman is upset and trying to be brave, but the poem describes a specific image of her makeup, not her action, which conveys just as much as the sentence. Paying attention to word choice, being open to interpretation, and focusing on specific images can make reading poetry a lot less painful as you’re reaching your hand out for understanding.


Poetry Foundation

Literature Criticism Online

Poetry Journal (Online)

Literary Hub

The 32 Most Iconic Poems in the English Language

A Library Poem, by yours truly:


I am old made new

with the same text,

just in different formations


made with a bumpy

spine and inkiness

spilling into minds


thick and thin,

worn and crisp,

immobile and flexible.


I can break your

ignorance and shatter

your hate


or pry open your heart

with a simple line

of dialogue


spill me and I flutter

drop me and I slam

burn me and you admit


in my power to unite

peoples. my three fates are:

collect dust, become dust,

or be dusted.



Roach, Rebecca. “Six Reasons Why People Hate Poetry.” Medium, Trubadour, 16 Apr. 2017, 

Staff, Harriet. “The Troublesome Debate Around Poetry’s ‘Inherent’ Elitism.” Poetry Foundation, 2015, 

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