Let’s admit it: most of us are a little uncomfortable with reading and writing poetry, yeah? When’s the last time you wrote a poem? Was it that haiku for 7th grade Language Arts? Do you think of poetry as necessarily rhyming? Does it strike you as the domain of either predominantly 200 year old white British men or emotionally overwhelmed teenagers? If you nodded your head 'yes' to any of these questions, perhaps it’s time you revisit the possibilities of poetry.

Writing poetry

I think the discomfort with writing it comes from some common perceptions of poetry, which I will swiftly dispel below so you no longer need quiver in your boots at the thought of taking that poetry writing class:

1)      You must have talent to do it. I recall my poetry professor, Sabrina Orah Mark, who visited Agnes Scott during fall ’07 and spring ’09, once said that writing poetry is about 5% talent and 95% practice. The words of a professional poet, y’all. 

2)      You have to have something interesting to say to write poetry. Poetry can be a medium through which you create or find something to say, something you may not have even known you could think of. Though poetry can certainly give voice to some profound metaphysical or political understanding, it doesn’t have to. Poetry can also be treated like a road trip without a map – the fun, adventure, and danger of it lie in not knowing what will come next. At the same time, a good poem follows a set of rules, and breaks them if necessary. Check out http://www.poetryresourcepage.com/teach/pex.html for exercises to jump-start your process.

3)      Poetry has to rhyme and have form. While formal poetry structures can be fun to play with, you certainly don’t have to box yourself into them. One thing I’ve discovered in my poetry classes at Agnes Scott is the way that form and content can inform and influence one another to shape the reader's experience of the poem. For instance, prose poems, blocks of text with stable margins which look like prose on the page, are often used to contain unstable and wild ideas, creating dissonance, a sense that the form is the one thing that is preventing the poem from exploding. You can find forms to play with here at http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/197; try the abecedarian.

Reading poetry

I have both noticed and experienced a fear of poetry, especially in the classroom. In part I think this stems from not knowing how to interpret it. Though I have no easy solution, I encourage those who are interested to confront this initial discomfort and assert your right to not understand a poem. Who does know how to read poetry? It is frequently ambiguous, complicated, and layered; it can keep secrets and tell lies. Try to cultivate a sense of curiosity about what a poem has to communicate. Be patient with the process. Reading poetry is an exercise in listening which requires all of your senses, your intuition, imagination, and intellect. Feeling bewildered, I've found, is the first step in reading a poem, and that's probably a good thing; once you've found yourself bewildered, you can begin to explore.

Get started now. Then bring that poetry into the writing center and let us know where you end up!


Katy Flinn is a junior and a tutor at the Agnes Scott Writing Center.

Amen, Katy! I love reading and tutoring poetry because I don't feel like I have to understand everything... it's pretty liberating. thanks for your post!


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