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Poetry is about discovering, not dissecting

April 04, 2006|by LYDIA HADFIELD

Poetry in school often feels more like shop class than English. Teachers ask you to take a poem apart, line by line, word by word, cog by cog. They want you to spread it across your desk and dismantle its meaning. Poetry becomes mechanical. A chore.

Perhaps that's why some people don't like poetry. Or maybe it's because teens never like the poems they have to read in class. They think they're dusty, pompous and dead.

Poetry is not dead. Poetry doesn't have to be boring. Poetry is not limited to the girl in the corner of the cafeteria comparing her love for Josh to a hungry raven. There is a wide variety of new poetry out there waiting to be read. There's a world of poetry that extends far beyond your high school classroom.

If you want to give poetry another chance, consider looking at some contemporary material. The work of our national poets laureate is a good place to start. According to the Library of Congress poetry Web site (www.loc.gov/poetry), the poet laureate "serves as the nation's official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans." It's part of their job to make poetry more available to the public, and to make the public more interested in poetry.

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Recent poets laureate have been known for their accessible styles. For example, Billy Collins, the United States poet laureate from 2001 to 2003, is known for his clarity, simplicity and wry winks of humor. The following laureate, Louise Glck (2003 to 2004) writes poems that are deeply emotional and personal. The poems of current poet laureate Ted Kooser are crystalline distillations of ordinary moments. He writes of seeing dishwater fly out of a screen door and of reading a book as the sun sets.

During his term as poet laureate, Collins created a program called Poetry 180: a poem a day for American high schools. The program provides 180 contemporary poems to be "read and listened to without any academic requirements" over a high school public address system. Visit the Poetry 180 Web site, www.loc.gov/poetry/180, for more information.

Collins published the 180 poems in book format under the title "Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry." As a sequel, Collins compiled "180 more: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day." The selected poems are easy to understand and enjoy. Topics cover a wide range of human experiences, observations and imaginings.

It is best to approach poetry with an open mind. Sometimes poems that don't "make sense" can be enjoyable once you stop looking for meaning. Above all, there's no need for poetry to be an ordeal or for reading a poem to become an arduous process. Aart is discovery, seeing something you haven't seen before, or thinking about something in a different way.

Try approaching poetry as if you're building images in your mind, not hacking them apart.

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