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Round Table: Poetry Month

A graphic over a pale blue background. Text reads: National Poetry Month DPP Round Table. There is clipart of a fancy green-covered book, the cover lifted, with a quill pen and a page of notes below it.

April is National Poetry Month. Duck Prints Press has to date only published prose fiction, and while some of us do write poetry on the side, it’s generally not our focus. Thus, we thought it’d be fun and interesting to have a discussion about poetry, how poetry has impacted us, and our favorite poems. The people who joined in on the round table chat are: Nina Waters, Tris Lawrence, Shadaras, Zel Howland, boneturtle, E C, Shea Sullivan,  theirprofoundbond, and an anonymous contributor.

1. What are your favorite types of poems?

Nina Waters: I tend to like either extremely free form or extremely structured poetry, with nothing in between. I always loved silly poetry (Shel Silverstein…) especially.

Anonymous: Same. I generally like either narrative poems or poems that are about a specific moment. I’m especially fond of reading haiku, though I don’t know how good I am at writing them.

Tris Lawrence: I tend to have favorite writers more than favorite styles. I love the cadence of Shakespeare. I love the imagery of Emily Dickinson (I cannot even count how many times I read the book of poetry of hers that I received for Christmas as a young child). I adored Robert Frost as a child. For modern poetry, Amanda Gorman‘s book was an incredibly wonderful kick in the gut.

Zel Howland: I’ve always had a mixed relationship with poetry – I struggle with understanding figurative language, so often the meaning of poetry escapes me, but I love the technical forms of poetry. This means that I end up being better at writing poetry than reading it. That said, I love silly poems and nonsense poems because they are more about the form than the content! Shel Silverstein and Lewis Carroll come to mind first.

E. C: I love seeing/hearing poetry read aloud. Slam poetry or Shakespearean monologue, the way the act of speaking them gives additional meaning to the words is just *chef’s kiss*. I also love poets (like Silverstein, as Zel mentioned) who use the form to play with the words. Prose can do this, too, but reading or hearing good poetry… it’s like I can feel the words rewiring my brain in real-time.

Shadaras: +1, poetry when performed is absolutely incredible. And it doesn’t need to be slam or a monologue; most poetry when read aloud is fantastic! (Shape poems might lose something, but… that’s aiming for a different style)

Shea Sullivan: I love poetry that viscerally evokes feeling with word choice and has rhythm. I love Rainer Maria Rilke first and last, but also Seamus Heaney and Mary Oliver.   I struggle with so many popular poets because the work doesn’t scan for me and I can’t make sense of the rhythm. But the poems that hit take me out at the knees.

Tris Lawrence: Coming back to this discussion this morning, I remembered I should add song lyrics to this… for me, really excellent songs are the best poetry, and some writers (like [Bob] Dylan) I remember more for the poetry of the song than the performance of it. Much like how poetry when performed comes alive, music is that taken to even further down the line. As for poetry being performed, that’s why Shakespeare is so awesome when staged. Sometimes it’s easier to hear the lyricism than to read it. I also often recommend when reading a book of poetry, take it slow, and read one poem aloud  per day. This is how I savored Amanda Gorman’s book and how I really got the most out of every poem in that book.

theirprofoundbond: I want to echo what Shade and captainhaterade were talking about with regards to poetry and sound. I took a poetry class in college and when the professor had us read “Player Piano” by John Updike aloud it awakened something in my brain. I have never forgotten that experience and the absolute delight I felt, reading that poem.

When I went to university and took another poetry class, my instructor stressed that we should try reading poetry aloud – to slow you down a bit, to experience the sounds, to get just a little more out of it. He recommended reading it a little more like prose, not pausing at the end of a line if there’s no end-line punctuation. I always do these things now and it’s made poetry feel more accessible to me, and helped me enjoy it more.

Alfred Tennyson also does some great things with sound—no standout favorites just yet because I’m still exploring, but I like “Break, Break, Break”

Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices by Paul Fleischman is really wonderful book of children’s poems about insects, meant to be read aloud by two or more people.

I also love poems that have some specific structure. My favorite is the haiku, but I also really enjoy villanelles, sestinas, and pantoums. Not only do they have specific rhyme schemes but some lines must be repeated in specific places; I admire the skill they take to craft. “Villanelle for the Middle of the Night” by Jacqueline Osherow is a lovely example.

And narrative poems, because it’s so cool to get a story in a small, unique format. “Letter to the Person Who Carved His Initials into the Oldest Living Longleaf Pine in North America” by Matthew Olzmann is one that I found recently that really stands out to me

Nina Waters: Maybe the “best listened to” is why I struggle with it. Understanding and processing spoken stories like that is one of my weaker tricks.

theirprofoundbond: That may be it! It’s not for everyone, but I know it helped me. And I started reading academic stuff aloud to help me focus, and then I started reading my own writing aloud which has helped me improve it in many ways (dialogue, flow, style), and I read my editing assignments aloud because it helps me pick up on little things I might not, if I read silently. But yeah, everyone’s brains work differently so it might not be the trick for everyone – just something to try, perhaps, if it hasn’t been tried before or recently

2. What inspired/convinced you to start reading poetry and did you have any preconceived notions and biases about it before?

Shadaras: as far as how I started reading poetry… well, the thing is that a lot of children’s books are poetry, right? They’re written in rhyme because it’s a good way to help kids learn! So in that way, simply by being someone who loved reading (from a family who loved reading), I was always surrounded by poetry as a kid by the nature of early reader books. I know that I was also introduced to poets who are thought of as poets as I grew up, and generally liked poetry even if I didn’t seek it out much. I wrote poetry as a kid just as much as I wrote prose!

Nina Waters: I’ll own I had some preconceived notions about poetry and reading poetry hasn’t really dispelled them? I’ve always found most “high literary” poetry quite inaccessible. Things like epic poetry (such as Homer) I love and can read no problem, and things like silly poetry (Silverstein, Dr. Seuss) I also love and can read no problem, but the kind of poetry that’s ~deep~ and tends to win accolades, I often feel like my eyes glaze over when I try to read it. I just really struggle with it.

Shadaras: I feel like that’s almost more a problem with the idea of “high literary” mode in general? Because I feel like that about a lot of different kinds of media. It’s like people think that if they struggle to understand what a piece of media is about, that means it’s ~higher art~ or something. (There’s a certain style of movie I call “award bait” and I think it is adjacent to what you’re thinking of with poetry here.) And yes, deep and thematically complex art is fantastic and deserves praise, but there’s also something to be said for praiseworthy works being enjoyable/accessible to the majority of people who encounter it? and that doesn’t seem to factor in to those “high literary” assessments.

Nina Waters: That’s definitely true, and something I used to talk about when I was still doing academic reading and writing. This idea that these ~great minds~ would write these papers, and they weren’t good, they were jargon-laden bullshit. Their sheer inaccessibility would always convince a subset of people that it must be genius, because the alternative would be to admit they didn’t personally understand it and no one wanted to confess that.

With poetry it’s harder but there’s definitely that line between “this is so eloquent and deep” vs. “this literally means NOTHING.” (And with poetry, there’s the added “sometimes the line that is eloquent and deep to one person is exactly the same line that means nothing to someone else and because of the nature of poetry that’s kinda the point and both interpretations are ‘correct'”)

theirprofoundbond: I have been, and still am, a bit intimidated by poetry. A lot of it can be really inaccessible, whether it’s classical or modern. I’m not sure I’ll ever truly grasp the meter stuff, lol. But as with any other written work, poetry can be for anyone. Even if I can’t understand a poem on all levels, it’s okay because it’s still worth exploring and I might find something that resonates with me, or teaches me something, or inspires my own (prose) writing.

3. What can a prose writer learn from reading poetry?

Tris Lawrence: It’s really all about the way the words taste, and how that evokes imagery and sensation and emotion for me. Which is also what I take from it as a prose writer – I’ve always been about the way words feel in my mouth when I write.

Shadaras: I might mostly write prose now, but the poetic instinct is still in my head; it’s very visible (audible?) in descriptive passages I write, because I think about rhythm and shape and sound all the time even in my prose writing.

theirprofoundbond: Reading poetry has inspired me to think more carefully about choice of word, pay attention to how certain emotions are evoked or impacts achieved, and to play with sounds.

Shadaras: I think that reading poetry is a fantastic way to think about metaphor/simile and descriptive language more generally. It also emphasises the rhythm/shape/sound of words and asks for a focus on specificity and thoughtful word-choice to maximize the impact of any given piece. Those elements are just as useful to prose writers as poets! Poets might be able to sustain that in-depth focus across a whole piece (since they usually work in shorter forms), but even if a prose writer only uses that specific attention at points of intense emotion where they really want to ensure there’s an impact, it’s still fantastic.

Anonymous: So I guess what I’m saying is that is that reading poetry will make you a better short story writer.

Shadaras: Yeah, the dividers between poems, prose poems, and prose is… sometimes about framing/intent?

Anonymous: Often I find short stories are structured like poetry, in that the narrative is kind of intentionally picked apart and rearranged to evoke emotion rather than straightforward understanding of the narrative.

Shadaras: And then there’s epic poetry, which is a long-form narrative as well as being poetry!

Anonymous: It’s harder to do that kind of thing with long-form fiction but it does happen occasionally.

Nina Waters: I think reading poetry can really help a prose writer with lyricism and flow.

Zel Howland: Seconded what everyone has said about reading poetry helping with lyricism and rhythm. I think having a good understanding of poetry technique can really develop how your prose manipulates (for lack of a better word) the reader beyond what is in the content – building tension in horror, for example. Great for genre work in general!

Shea Sullivan: From a writing standpoint, poetry helps me improve metaphor and simile by encouraging me to look beyond common comparisons and really dig into the question of what I want to evoke. I agree with everyone else that it helps with rhythm as well.

Anonymous: One thing I will note is that a short story can be very close to poetry and vice versa. Some of my favourite poems are in fact short stories that blur the line between stylized prose and outright poetry. Neil Gaiman has a few short stories that are especially good in this way, for example.

4. Our favorite poets

Many of our favorite poets were already discussed and linked in the above discussion, but here’s a few more…

Nina Waters: I’ve especially enjoyed Silverstein, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, and T. S. Eliot. I went on a big Eliot kick when I was young cause I saw the musical Cats, and while I didn’t care much for the musical it made me curious about the poems that the musical was based on. I loved Silverstein so much that I memorized a couple of his poems for school. I also memorized a [J. R. R.] Tolkien poem and performed it at a school talent show when I was in middle school, so those plus reading Eliot because of Cats (which I was probably in early HS for?) is how I got started reading poetry for fun instead of just cause I had to.

Shadaras: Some other poets I’ve appreciated whose names haven’t come up yet: Mary Oliver, Ursula Le Guin, Pablo Neruda, Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, Edgar Allen Poe, Sylvia Plath, Robert Graves, W. B. Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, William Carlos Williams (I once wrote a short essay about “The Red Wheelbarrow” for a poetry class wherein I attempted to argue it could be about aliens/ritual sacrifice, because it was funny and I thought the professor would enjoy it, and I was correct about that).

Nina Waters: Langston Huges is i.n.c.r.e.d.i.b.l.e. W.E.B. Du Bois too. (Not his focus but there are a few)

boneturtle: Seconding Rilke. I will also add Annie Dillard.

How about you, dear blog post reader? How would you answer these four questions?

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