Whenever a stranger asks me what my books are about, I cringe a little inside. I know what’s coming. I can see it in their eyes as I explain three of my books are filled with poetry and so is the one on the verge of being released for sale. Before they even state the inevitable, “I don’t like poetry,” I want to explain, “I don’t write that kind of poetry. I think you’d actually like it. I write what I call ‘poetry for the people.’ You don’t have to dissect it to understand and enjoy it.” I know this because whoever I’m talking to has been through school and somewhere along the line, they took an English class where poetry was analyzed, taken apart, and for them, utterly ruined.
Especially in high school, teachers explain how the winter snow symbolizes the denigration of the human psyche or how the repeated use of the hard “c” sound was a technique used by the poet to illustrate the difficulties of life. Poetry starts feeling like an endless jungle the student has no hope of navigating and they give up in exasperation. As a poet myself, I scoff at such a lesson. Writers rarely comprehend everything in their own work. We don’t always have a greater symbolism behind what we’re writing—sometimes a river is just a river and snow is just snow. I recently sat with a man who pointed out to me how skilfully I’d written a poem and all the techniques I’d used. The whole time I was thinking, “Wow! I did all that?” I think many of the poets we study in high school would react the same way. We don’t always understand on a conscious level what we’ve poured into our words and oftentimes, we never intended a hidden meaning in the first place.
While acknowledging I understand and use such techniques because I first learned them in school, I would be disturbed if one of my poems was treated in such a dry and impassionate way. Go ahead and study it if you like, but don’t twist the words around and dissect them so much that you don’t enjoy or find personal meaning in them anymore.
There are times when the poet has a deeper meaning in mind when they write about the snow or their connection with the river, but poetry is more about what it means for the reader than the writer. When I write, I write something meaningful for me, something that’s honest and vulnerably real. There’s power in that intention and if it’s well said, the reader will connect with it, maybe even have something to think about, but I don’t believe in burying the meaning so deeply within poetic technique that someone has to study my words for an hour to gain any benefit.
For those who do take the chance and look at my books, they find to their surprise they actually do like it. They connect on a deep level and for them, at least in part, poetry stands redeemed. While I can’t change everybody’s opinion, I rejoice in those who come back to tell me, “I usually don’t like poetry but I like yours. Can I get the next book?” I feel like I’ve won something whenever I hear these words. I feel like I’ve been rewarded with a gift truly worth earning: their good opinion, and now, something previous closed to them stands wide open and I had the privilege to be a part of it.
Someday I’d like to speak to high school English classes, help them understand that while technique is important, the beauty of poetry lies in how it makes you feel, what it makes you think about, or how it teaches you to see things in a new way. I’d like to help them find the poetry within themselves before it becomes a genre they avoid. Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing my “poetry for the people,” trusting my intuition and hopefully, redeeming poems for one person at a time.