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Entering a Poem

This is not a “how to” manual but an uncomplicated, oft-overlooked observation. I recall teaching students who were frustrated that they didn’t “get” the poem before deciding poetry was not for them.

As I sat on a dock listening to twins splashing and laughing a couple of cottages away, and bird language of tweets, chirps, whistles, I opened a literary journal filled with poetry. It was the third time I had brought the book down to the lake. The first two times, I attempted to read a poem, the words remained static symbols on a page. Not experiencing one moment of epiphany or even the slightest curiosity, I closed the journal and tucked it away for another day.

I headed down to the water again this afternoon and opened Rattle, the same journal I had attempted to read before, and immediately fell into the microcosm of “Sky Blue,” “To Keep the Day,” and “How to Date a White Boy.” This reading experience, instead of relating static, led to emotional resonance, connections, word challenges, and yes, the epiphany—all leaping. I instantly longed to read more by each anthologized poet. “What happened next?” I wanted to ask Amy Alvarez who wrote “How to Date a White Boy.” Chris Anderson had me gingerly stepping over hot lava formed rocks with Charles Darwin in “Misreading Darwin” only to find that Darwin, too, lost a son. He also lost a daughter.

How long was I out on the dock slipping into these other lives, this emotional and intellectual territory that seemed as if it had been written just for me? I then remembered the constraints under which young readers, students, are asked to quickly read and engage with material without considering the compact. The compact that says, “I must be ready.” It is not about difficult vocabulary or layered symbols and metaphors that sometimes make poetry unapproachable but, simply, “the reader has not yet signed on.”

Poetry, perhaps more than prose, but definitely poetry asks of readers: “are you ready? Are you willing? Are you open?” If only we always had the luxury of time to approach and approach again later, education, reading, life would look so very different.

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