Tony Woodlief | Author

The trouble with poetry

Adam Roberts begins a five-part manifesto on why you should be reading poetry:

“I remember, as a young person, being posed the question, ‘what kind of music do you like?,’ and coolly, sensibly replying, ‘everything but classical!’ Now, as a graduate student and adjunct professor, when I ask my students what they like to read, I generally hear the following:

‘Oh, pretty much anything.’

They pause.

‘…except poetry. I really don’t like reading poetry.’

Why? What had poetry ever done to them?

And yet, as a teacher and poet, I often find myself strangely identifying with their answer. Yeah, poetry sucks! It’s confusing, it’s pretentious, it’s precious, it’s frivolous and disconnected and has nothing to do with my life. Right on.

It is to and from this perspective—that of the absolute, and righteous, skeptic—that I would like to address this series on poetry—a series in which I will actually appeal to you to read the stuff.”

This puts me in mind of two of my favorite Billy Collins poems, excerpts of which I’ll share with you. The first is from “The Trouble with Poetry,” included in the collection of the same name:

the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world,

and there is nothing left to do
but quietly close our notebooks
and sit with our hands folded on our desks.

The second comes from “Introduction to Poetry,” in his collection, Sailing Alone Around the Room. It’s written from the perspective of a teacher leading a college poetry workshop:

I want them to water-ski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore

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

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

On Key

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