To call a piece of art poetry is one of the greatest compliments you can pay. That sonata is poetry. That sentence is poetry. Your face is poetry. The very word “poetry,” in my opinion, is poetry.
Yet despite the word’s everyday use, the genre it represents is often misunderstood. For a majority of people, poetry is elusive and unteachable. It’s an enigma, a niche art. At worst, a dead genre.
A recent MFA graduate was sharing a story about a student she taught. He wrote an essay stating that poetry was obsolete, that no one wrote it anymore. Regardless of how many times she rebutted him, he kept this statement in every draft. That’s how certain he was. To him, poetry was Latin. You don’t speak Latin with your friends or use it contribute a contemporary conversation. You learn it to translate ancient texts.
In this student’s mind, people like me are wasting our time by taking poetry classes. And frankly, that’s okay. His misconceptions about poetry are most likely born from the fact that he doesn’t know—or doesn’t want to know—anything about poetry. He doesn’t write poetry, and he probably hasn’t read any poets aside from a few dead white men he was forced to read in high school. If someone like him tells me I’m devoting myself to a dead genre, I shrug and agree to disagree.
What really concerns me are the potential poets who don’t believe that poetry can be taught. During my undergraduate career, I encountered so many people who absolutely loved poetry, who even wrote poetry, and yet refused to ever take a poetry class or workshop. I worry because I was almost one of them.
At six, I wrote my first poems on a Microsoft Creative Writer page, each in brightly-colored, too-large fonts, and all of them completely terrible. As a teenager, I ventured back into poetry, this time in the form of old-fashioned ballads that I inserted into my fantasy novels. I didn’t dare try contemporary poetry. It was like computer code to me. I appreciate its value and admire those who write it and understand it, but I haven’t the faintest clue how they do it. So, when I decided to pursue creative writing in college, I planned to admire poetry from afar.
When I found myself in my first poetry workshop, I was convinced I would spend the entire semester failing. Failing to decipher meaning from the poems we read. Failing to write the type of poems they’d want in a college creative writing course. I was shocked and amazed when, a few weeks into the course, everything started to click. That course did what I didn’t think was possible—it taught me poetry. Suddenly, free verse wasn’t a jumble of words scattered haphazardly across a page. I learned how line breaks can add emphasis, affect pacing, and contribute to tone. I learned the different effects of short stanzas vs. long stanzas and symmetrical stanzas vs. jagged stanzas. I learned that a poet doesn’t begin a poem with this intricate, perfected, God-given idea in their head. Poetry is about finding the small moments in our lives, holding them in our hands, tracing our fingers over their curves and edges, testing their joints until they pop open like oysters to reveal greater truths inside. You don’t begin a poem knowing where it takes you. You follow the poem, listen to it, refine it until it leads you somewhere. It takes time and patience and—yes, I’ll say it—faith.
After each class, I felt as though my professor was handing me another key and another and another until I could walk up to the wall of poetry and unlock its many drawers. With every poetry class I take, I can feel another key slip onto my belt.
I wrote poems. Contemporary, free verse poems. I read poetry books. Contemporary, free verse poetry books. And I liked it. I loved it. I became a poet. But none of that would have ever happened if I had listened to that little voice that told me poetry can’t be taught and never taken that class.
It is easy to look at poetry from the outside and decide that you just don’t have what it takes. Poetry challenges us to look at the world in a different way, and that feeling can be intimidating at first. But other art forms offer that same challenge. I believe the problem with poetry is that it is an art form we perceive to be less learnable. Many people, like myself, do not realize there actually are ways to learn poetry, that there are basic guidelines and insights that can make poetry click for you. Despite poetry’s diversity of style and form, there are still common elements—like lineation, imagery, concrete detail. By learning how these elements work and how to use them, we can begin to understand and access poetry.
Another reason why many people doubt that poetry can be taught is that they say poetry is subjective. And yes, this is largely true. But subjectivity doesn’t mean that something can’t be taught. If anything, it means there is more freedom in the learning process. While common elements exist in all good poems, there isn’t just one right way “to poetry.” There is room for so many different poetic styles and voices.
Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that the “poetry-is-subjective” argument can often be a front. Too often, subjectivity takes the form of the poet who responds to every critique by saying: “Well, you just don’t get it.” And yes, some people will not get your vision. Others will. We all have different tastes and inclinations, and that’s why you choose who influences you carefully. But assuming that everyone who finds something to improve in your piece is simply incapable of seeing your creative vision is artistically limiting.
Like any art form, poetry is personal. Receiving criticism is hard, especially on a piece you have poured your heart and soul into. But the moment we let our insecurities turn into defensive, knee-jerk reactions against any criticism, that’s the moment we stop evolving as writers. Workshops are so important to the development of a writer because they challenge us not to give into that tendency. I would even go so far as to argue that the greatest writers are born from workshop-like experiences. We need people to challenge us, humble us, break us down and lift us up. And maybe poets need it more than most. Because there is that assumption that most people can’t understand poetry, it can be too easy to fall into that trap of rejecting constructive criticism as someone not “getting it.” But people can get poetry, and it is the guidance of poetry teachers, as well as peers, that can help make sure that they will.
Emma Reinhardt is a first-year MFA candidate for Poetry at the University of Central Florida. She edits for UCF’s Office of Prestigious Awards and serves as the graduate advisor for The Cypress Dome literary magazine. When she is not writing poems about nature, childhood, or heartbreak, she can be found playing board games, pounding out Broadway songs on the piano, or snuggling her parents’ pit bull.