Let Them Read Poetry!




I once heard another poet say, “Only poets read poetry.” My reaction was half- pshah! that can’t be true! and half- ah, how true! Personally, my reading list is split pretty equally between poetry and fiction/memoirs- recently it’s Matthew Dickman’s All-American Poetry and Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild. One is on Oprah’s book club list and the other isn’t.


The above claim- only poets read poetry- ruffles my curiosity. I know many non-writers who read poetry, but usually, they have some other personal connection to the arts. What about the person who read Dickinson in high school and hasn’t scanned nary a line since? Does poetry have a bad reputation? My guess is that many people assume it to be esoteric, lofty, or just plain weirdIt didn’t make sense…Nothing happened in the poem- what am I supposed to get out of that? These questions muddied my own early experiences with poetry, and they’re precisely what I imagine most of my friends saying if they read some poets I really savor.


Cue Richard Blanco, a Cuban-American poet given the commission of a lifetime when he was named the 57th Inaugural poet. In the frigid winds of January, he read his poem, “One Today” to an audience of millions. Only poets read poetry– except when the audience is a captive one, like at a presidential inauguration. Personally, I appreciated Blanco’s telling of the ordinary yet extraordinary American story, one that weaves collective tragedy in with personal triumph, turns familiar sounds into new choruses, covering the manifold landscapes of our humanity. I couldn’t help but wonder what the average American thought of Blanco’s poem, the person still reeling from war, suffering in economic crisis, grieving one too many losses. Did he like it? Did it make sense? Did it move her? Did it ring like an anthem?


Blanco knew the stakes. In an interview with The New York Times, he said, “The challenge is how to be me in the poem, to have a voice that’s still intimate but yet can encompass a multitude of what America is.” In my opinion: mission accomplished. But beyond the inaugural poem, that is exactly what poems do, and exactly why poetry is for everyone. Through one individual voice, our common language is revealed. I watch Human Planet and Elizabeth Bishop’s In the Waiting Room is ringing through my ears. A friend dies, and Marie Howe reminds me What the Living Do. Matthew Dickman’s purple gorilla of Grief says it all.


If you don’t read a lick of poetry, trust me- it’s all there. Trust poetry. Like any art, it requires our faith that something awaits us within, and the effort to get there is always worth it.


Stohlberg, Cheryl Gayle. (January 8, 2013). “Poet’s Kinship With the President”. The New York Times. Retrieved January 23, 2013.

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