VerseDay: in praise of transcendent poetry and good poetry teachers

In fall of 1987 I was in my first semester of an English MA program at Iowa State, and was taking a seminar in contemporary American poets. The class was an eye-opener for me, as I’d not read many poets later than Dylan Thomas, and if you’re going to be a real writer it’s always helpful to know a thing or two about the present day, right?

One of the writers we were reading was Charles Wright, a fellow Southerner who’s won a lot of awards and prizes, up to and including the Pulitzer. I have come to regard him as our finest living poet (although I have to admit that since I still don’t read as many contemporaries as I should, there may be somebody out there better that I just haven’t found yet).

I was having trouble, though. Wright’s work can difficult – dense, complex, and not at all shy about immersing itself in terrain where the reader can quickly become lost. That’s where I was – lost. I loved the vibrancy of his language – he reminded me of people like Thomas and Gerard Manly Hopkins, writers with a knack for turning mere words into visual art and music – but I had no clue what any of it meant.

Then one of my fellow students, David McWright, spoke up: “I don’t what it means, but I feel something.”

And in that moment the light went on. I felt something, too. So I let the intellect drift and stepped back into The Other Side of the River and poems like “Lonesome Pine Special,” which is one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever encountered in literature. (It’s the last poem here, and it’s worth the read.) Once I let go of the need to parse every line rationally it began to make sense in ways that are difficult to express.

I came to grasp how the word “meaning” has been wholly colonized by the intellectual. If it is to mean, it must be subject to rational description, right? But Wright’s work taught me how meaning can transcend the rational – a poem can mean spiritually, intuitively, emotionally.

How many times in my life have I come across people who “don’t get” poetry, and therefore avoid it? (Including my wife.) As my Wright epiphany settled in I began probing the response, though. “Why don’t you get it?” A pattern emerged. People hit high school and there have their first encounters with poetry and the official teaching thereof, and then something goes wrong. Too often, high school poetry is taught like biology. You have your poem, and it’s laid out like a frog on dissection pan. It’s carved open, subjected to a methodical disembowelment, its sundry parts are extracted and set to the side, and in time the student comes to “understand” the poem.

Sadly, the poem is now like a dissected frog. It won’t croak. It won’t hop around. It won’t snap flies with that marvelous sticky tongue. In short, frog and poem and now both thoroughly dead. The process by which poetry is taught in too many places robs the work of its passion, its vibrancy, its very life.

I was lucky. I had a very good high school English teacher. We analyzed in the traditional way, but not in a way that was alien, distancing and ultimately fatal to the metaphorical frog before us. I suspect that if more people had learned about poetry the way I did, at the hands of a geniunely skillful teacher who understood how to bring verse to life, the form might not be such an arcane curiosity today. I don’t know that we’d have poets doing stadium tours, exactly, but perhaps it would be at least as popular an enterprise as detective fiction.

So here’s to Charles Wright, for writing things that transcend logic and language. Here’s to Jim Booth for teaching me to love poetry. And here’s to David McWright for feeling something and having the wisdom to raise his hand and say it out loud.

If you had a great teacher, we’d love to hear about it. And please, name names….

Now playing: Interpol – Narc


  • If you haven’t read it before, you should absolutely read “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins.

    “But all they want to do
    is tie the poem to a chair with rope
    and torture a confession out of it.”

    Dr. Naton Leslie used that in his writing poetry class. It was partially as an example of good modern poetry, but, I think it was also to remind us of how to *read* poetry.

  • Ooh – now THAT’S a line I wish I’d written.

  • “I don

  • Took a moment to read “Lonesome Pine Special.” I see now why Wright is held in such high regard.

    He handily subverts rhythm problem that besets much modern poetry. Like when jazz drumming moved away from 4/4 and dance beats, poetry lost much of the public when it evolved beyond conventional metric structures and rhymes.

    But Wright shows you don’t have to be conventional to be accessible. (Apparently, as you mention, other poems of his are more oblique.)

  • Sam, your experience with poetry parallels mine with classical music. Once I stopped trying to excessively understand it, I was left to feel it, to enjoy it.

    Now I understand it better, because I FELT it first.

    And cheers for Jim, too.

  • Poor Kermit. 🙂

    I thought the whole point of good music and writing (to include poetry) was to FEEL it.

  • you like it because you feel represented.
    So, you’re not much different from a hip-hopper in that way

    Any art transcends the boundaries of logic and reason, but is the definition of art “feels good to me”


    I guess 50 Cent is art then…?

    Meaning’s been colonized by the intellectual? I thought YOU were an intellectual? I noticed there’s a PhD aftee your name

    What about anything is taught correctly in high school?
    I think you’d have to ask your individual teacher.

  • I’ve never really fancied myself an intellectual, although I suppose I am. And I certainly set aside a lot of my creative pursuits to develop the intellectual side, didn’t I?

    Still, I have always seem myself as an artist first. The other things I am – intellectual, businessman, etc. – are there out of necessity.

  • I think the creative and intellectual sides of us are one.
    There are entire labyrinths just waiting to be discovered, creatively, intellectually, physically, spiritually..why limit ourselves at any preconceived boundary?

    I don’t think you’re really like 50 Cent, I say this to make a point. You are not like fiddy and neither is Charles Wright – there’s a difference.

    Business is part of the whole, journalism is part of the whole, the whole world is I and Thou, there is no Other to address…

  • In the best of cases the creative and intellectual are integrated. Our most brilliant scientific discoveries occur, I think, when you have a brilliant scientist with a strong creative streak (like Einstein, for instance).

    Even when I’m doing things that aren’t apparently about creativity at all, I’m aware of the ability to think innovatively helps me succeed where others might not. And there’s no question that a strong intellect is a boost when we’re doing things that are mainly creative.

    However, I find that these faculties aren’t integrated as often as we’d like. The person who has that “whole-brain” thing going on is the exception, not the rule.

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