Reading the article made me think of two things about poetry that have profoundly affected my life. One is my own journey from hating poetry to enjoying it and teaching it; the other has been poetry’s journey from the common man’s literary form to academia’s near secret code.
Even those who say they hate poetry probably don’t. Not if they love “‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house …,” or “Oh Beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain …,” or for that matter, “The devil went down to Georgia / He was looking for a soul to steal ...”
Yes, show me your favorite song and I’ll show you your favorite poem. If you like a song, you like a poem because song and poetry are all about sounds, cadence, sometimes rhyme, and always compressed thought.
“Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee / Greenest state in the Land of the Free / Raised in the woods so he knew every tree / Killed him a bar when he was only three” is about as compressed as it gets. While those words probably exaggerate Davy Crockett’s childhood prowess, they still paint a picturesque Tennessee, give a nod of approval to America, celebrate the frontier, and create a hero all in four short lines.
From grades one through 10, I despised poetry. Even the cute nursery rhymes, the rhyming songs, anything that wasn’t regular subject and verb sentences turned me off. To me, poems of any stripe were silly. I’m afraid it was a male thing, which of course was silly on my part, but at school I noticed that the girls loved poetry and boys didn’t, so where was that supposed to leave me?
Had male peer pressure been no part of it, however, I still would have had a hard time transitioning from country living to the poems that were just too far from my world. From gathering wood, vaccinating calves, hoeing corn and feeding chickens (all of which I loved) to “Let us go then, you and I / When the evening is spread against the sky …” was too big of a jump.
In the 11th grade, however, two things happened: a teacher and a poet. The teacher was Martha Hays; the poet was Robert Frost. Mrs. Hays won me first by talking about farm life in Missouri. A woman of class and learning (she was also the school choral director), she was also farm tough. When she read even the silly poems, they weren’t silly anymore. They now had a credible voice, one that pulled us tight to itself. The voice sat on a stool instead of behind a desk. When that calm Missouri voice read Robert Frost’s “The Woodpile” and “The Death of the Hired Man,” a country boy in the back would almost cry.
I did cry when she read Edwin Markham’s “Man with a Hoe,” which was a strong statement about the tribulations of the American working class. The lines, “Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans / Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground / The emptiness of ages in face / And on his back the burden of the world,” made me think of my steady father, who at that very moment was laboring in another man’s field.
But it was Frost who made me see that straight subject and verb sentences weren’t the only way to convey knowledge or thought. Frost was no farmer (he failed at it), but he could write about it just as Stephen Crane could write convincingly of war in “The Red Badge of Courage” without having been in a single battle himself. Frost’s portraits of the New England landscape captured the flavor of New England life with traditional verse forms and conversational language.
Since 1965 or so, American and British poetry has changed drastically. Unlike that of Frost or England’s Tennyson, modern poetry has turned inward. Introspection is the order of the day. Poetry’s new topics are emotional problems, diversity, feminism and politics, a far cry from the life lessons of Frost.
Most modern poetry is hard to read. It’s as though it is written by poets for poets. It is often arcane, causing one to scratch his head in wonderment rather than feeling something in the heart.
Time, however, is what certifies value. Mrs. Hays would want me to wait awhile before judging modern poetry. I’m trying.
Roger Hines is a retired high school English teacher in Kennesaw.