I don’t like to tell people I read poetry. I don’t like to tell people I write poetry.
At least, I don’t like to tell people I read it religiously, each day taking a second out of my rapid-fire morning routine to breathe in Poetry Foundation’s poem of the day. Or that I try to write a poem before I go to bed every night, pen lazily meeting paper.
Partially, this hesitation is because self-identifying with poetry conjures up images of unwashed men in newsies hats writing in verse while they sob into a pillow at a local coffee shop—but mainly, it’s because telling them will begin a conversation, and I certainly don’t want to talk about poetry.
So, honoring World Poetry Day, which took place on March 21, presents a challenge for me.
Aside from music, poetry is by far the form of media I consume the most, and thus I should feel qualified to talk about it. There are single lines of verse I would write an entire book of reaction to if given the chance. But to me, poetry is an entirely solitary experience. Those who try to flesh out each intentionally sparse line in a sonnet are simply essay-ifying it, attempting to fit the poem into a more comfortable, more consumable art form.
I do not want to do that.
My aversion to writing about poetry proves too great to overcome, so I have instead taken a rhetorical cop-out: I am writing about writing about poetry.
The beauty of poetry is how little it gives. To me, the meaning of a poem comes from the feeling left in your chest once your eyes have left the last line. Good poems can leave you frustrated, melancholy, or uplifted. Great poems can leave you all three.
This simplistic explanation of meaning-making often does not satisfy—and I understand this. I, too, want to ask why the autumn was “brutal and beautiful” or why “the night hail made imprints all over” (some particularly striking lines from my current favorite poem, Together and By Ourselves, by Alex Dimitrov). But most likely the answer is that it was. That it did, or at least it felt like it did.
I firmly believe that once something is made, its meaning is left up to the readers. With poetry, this can be a daunting task, as allusions build on metaphors built on personification. It is an English teacher’s dream.
But picking out rhetorical devices in individual lines does little to explain the poem, as baking powder does not explain a chocolate cake. A poem is more than the sum of its (often arbitrary) thoughts. It is a thing, a tangible thing, that sits with you. It is not a canvas for debate.
The sparseness of poetry has led to a perception that it is hard to understand, an art form for the elite and linguistically-inclined. It understandably does not occupy much space in popular culture. Few eagerly await the release of a poem like a new movie, modern poets don’t have fan clubs or sell t-shirts with their faces stretched in unflattering ways—and the poetry that does get attention seems to be ready-made for easy consumption.
Okay. It’s time to talk about Rupi Kaur.
There are two types of poetry that seem to have found particular success in recent years. The first is slam poetry, which is an entirely different art form—these poems are written to be performed. They must have audible beats, be a certain length, and work in a crowded room. I concede these poems are not solitary, and for the shared experience, they must go into some language of explanation. They become communally interpreted rather than individually, and have value in their own right for that.
The second type is the Instapoets. Kaur, and those like her, write in short, concise verse. Their message is straightforward and elucidated by their poems in an incredibly clear way.
They are the topic of much debate—are they making poetry accessible or are they dumbing it down? I do not like Kaur’s poetry because I do not read poetry to be told something, I read it to feel something. Her phrases can be clever, but they do not stand at my window the way my favorite poems do.
This style of poetry gets around the interpretation problem altogether; there is nothing left to interpret. But the fact it is seen as more accessible reveals that people are reading poetry searching for meaning, they just don’t think they can find it in most poems.
Our insistence on filling in the gaps left in each stanza and wrapping lines up in tidy bows has undermined our belief that we are qualified consumers of poetry. The right interpretation of each poem is how it sits with you. When we academisize it, it becomes both undemocraitc and meaningless.
We are not used to reading something and being okay with not fully getting it. Indeed, for many pieces of writing, this is unacceptable. But for poetry, it is intentional. Becoming an avid poetry reader and non-interpreter is to become comfortable with the uncertain, able to take something away without understanding what it is.
So, I invite you to celebrate World Poetry Day. Read a poem or a whole collection. Read it aloud and in silence, once or a dozen times. Let it sit with you. Feel it as you do a ghost.
And do not ask me what it means.