Poetry shows the ways words connect us and can be a creative outlet for students in any major.
Poetry bores, frustrates, intimidates and irritates students made to study and write about it in English papers and essay tests. They’re quizzed on British Romanticism or what Dickinson’s buzzing fly represents. In “Introduction to Poetry,” Billy Collins laments the violent interrogation to which many readers subject poems. For students, poetry is something to get right or wrong, something with an answer to deliver in exchange for a grade. Once the poem is subdued, the student can escape, never thinking about John Donne’s “The Flea” ever again.
In my experience teaching college literature and writing, I’ve encountered resistance to poetry—from colleagues and students. I expect disinterest, even derision, when I mention my background as a writer and poetry editor at Philadelphia Stories, but each classroom harbors a few secret (and not-so-secret) poets. We shouldn’t be surprised that students focused on medicine, design or business might find an outlet in writing: Jefferson students contain multitudes, to paraphrase Whitman.
In Writing Seminar I, we ask students to consider the factors that shaped and continue to influence their language and voice. They might write in their literacy narrative about children’s books and nursery rhymes, learning English and finding certain homonyms confusing or funny, or the culture and history they preserve when they mesh their spoken or written English with elements from other dialects or languages.
During class, we watch a performance of a Jamila Lyiscott poem that illustrates the code-meshing and code-switching we discuss in academic articles. Lyiscott’s poem humanizes and clarifies ideas that might otherwise be strictly theoretical to some students. The study of poetry, that broad genre that includes Dante’s “Divine Comedy” as well as limericks honoring the various residents of Nantucket, should foster an appreciation for the ways words connect us.
In “What Writing Is,” Stephen King defines writing as telepathy and marvels at the magic trick of creating something unexpected in the reader’s mind—poof! A poem can bridge broad gulfs of difference, reminding us that someone else shares a specific feeling or idea and, so, we’re not alone.
The relationship between writer and reader depends on credibility. When a reader trusts a writer, they will go nearly anywhere the writer takes them. The writer, in turn, must trust the reader. A poet offers enough details for the audience to appreciate an image or a phrase but expects the audience to bring something of their own awareness and context to the page.
We shouldn’t be surprised that students focused on medicine, design or business might find an outlet in writing: Jefferson students contain multitudes, to paraphrase Whitman.
My mentor, Philly-based poet Liz Abrams-Morley, tells students the poet hands a reader a can of orange juice concentrate, but the reader must supply the jug, spoon and water to mix it up and make it make sense. In this metaphor, the poem is a site of collaboration and connection: poet and audience share the meaning and making of meaning.
Many of us are overwhelmed by the reading we do for our classes, and we tell ourselves we simply don’t have the bandwidth to read anymore. And yet, we read all the time! Think of doomscrolling through social media or complex text chains that stretch over days or months! Writer Claire Fallon suggests we’re becoming such efficient readers that we can’t slow ourselves down enough to appreciate the complexities of challenging texts. By streamlining the reading process, we skim the surfaces and never allow ourselves to fathom the depths.
In the same vein, readers are rejecting poetry (it’s elitist, hard to find, tough to understand, etc.) in favor of other forms of art and entertainment. We often complain about how we “don’t have time to think”—and, for most of the semester, we may not. But the beauty of even a very small verse is that it takes us briefly outside of ourselves: Poetry forces time.
I used to work as the assistant to the general manager at a busy regional theater. I’d get angry phone calls from patrons, I had to work up estimates for labor and I had to yell at the ushers. I didn’t love my job. Above my phone in my cubicle, I taped William Butler Yeats’s “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” a poem I had memorized for a college class. In the middle of a hard day, hour, minute, I would read the poem to myself, under my breath. The poem would quiet my mind and return me to calm, enabling me to process the next caller and their complaints about air conditioning or legroom.
A few years ago on Facebook, I asked people what poems they had memorized. Many of us have little snatches of poems that we can pull out of our pockets at any time. We should cultivate favorite poems the way we make playlists or mix tapes! Love them for reasons we may not even know! Keep them nearby in case of an emergency!
I was shocked at how many people know “Jabberwocky” by heart. Some friends return to the deep wisdom of Lucille Clifton at each birthday. During the dark and isolated first Christmas season of the pandemic, my partner, his father and I sat together and listened to a record that hadn’t been played in decades—Dylan Thomas reciting “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”
We turn to poems at funerals, weddings and other significant moments, but we also can turn to poems to acknowledge quieter occasions. In little moments of awe, I think of a line from Tess Gallagher’s poem “Each Bird Walking”: “Small then, the word holy.” Such lines give me language to hold even my biggest (or smallest) feelings.
We often complain about how we “don’t have time to think”—and, for most of the semester, we may not. But the beauty of even a very small verse is that it takes us briefly outside of ourselves: Poetry forces time.
Many of us respond similarly to our favorite songs; we allow ourselves to have a connection with music that we might also find in poetry. I wait for a song to end before I leave my car, or I hush my passengers because, “This is the best part!” Poems are often shorter than songs—I can read “Lake Isle of Innisfree” in under 60 seconds! Ross Gay’s “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian” can change the way I see strangers in less than five minutes. We seek connections to the lyrics, rhythms and sentiments of our favorite songs; such catharsis helps us process pain, grief or fear but also helps amplify joy and gratitude. Poems can help, too.
Poem in Your Pocket Day is April 29, 2024. I urge the Jefferson community to seek out poems that help them cope, celebrate or connect. Websites like PoetryFoundation.org and Poets.org are terrific resources. Philadelphia boasts a vibrant and varied poetry community; on any given day, you can find poetry readings, open mics, workshops and more. Visit Blue Stoop, Literary Philly or Philadelphia Stories to learn about this region’s writers and resources for writers.
Print or write poems out on paper. Fold them up and carry them around for a day. Maybe tape your poem to a mirror or on the door to your dorm room or office. Maybe tuck your poem into your planner or wallet where you can see it frequently. Maybe pin it over your desk and read it to yourself on your hard days. Maybe share your own poem, trusting an unknown reader to meet you there.
Courtney Bambrick is an assistant professor of writing at Jefferson.