An Introduction to Poetry and the new Poet Laureate

Yesterday the Library of Congress announced Juan Felipe Herrera as the nation’s twenty-first Poet Laureate.   Notably, Herrera is the first Hispanic chosen for the honor.

Collage of the author from his website, www.juanfelipepoet.com

Collage of the author from his website, http://www.juanfelipepoet.com

Though not familiar with Herrera (yet), I already feel a kinship with him.  When asked to share one of his poems in an NPR interview, Herrera chose “Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings” from 2008’s Half the World in Light: New and Selected Poems:

Before you go further,
let me tell you what a poem brings,
first, you must know the secret, there is no poem
to speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries,
yes, it is that easy, a poem, imagine me telling you this,
instead of going day by day against the razors, well,
the judgments, all the tick-tock bronze, a leather jacket
sizing you up, the fashion mall, for example, from
the outside you think you are being entertained,
when you enter, things change, you get caught by surprise,
your mouth goes sour, you get thirsty, your legs grow cold
standing still in the middle of a storm, a poem, of course,
is always open for business too, except, as you can see,
it isn’t exactly business that pulls your spirit into
the alarming waters, there you can bathe, you can play,
you can even join in on the gossip—the mist, that is,
the mist becomes central to your existence.

I have a soft spot for poetry about poetry, particularly by Poets Laureate.  While the Poet Laureate has a few official duties, the undertaking most visible to the public is usually a special project of the poet’s choosing.  This project is a form of outreach designed to increase the public’s awareness of and appreciation for poetry. With his selection of “Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings,” Herrera, who will officially take up his new position in the fall, already seems to have outreach in mind.  How I would have loved, as a college student taking Introduction to Poetry, for someone to tell me what a poem brings, to let me in on the secret the way Herrera does!  And how much sense it would have made to begin Introduction to Poetry with a Billy Collins poem of the same name:

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

 

or press an ear against its hive.

 

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

 

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

 

I want them to waterski
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.
Let me tell you, I tortured a heck of a lot of confessions out of poetry in the spring semester of my freshman year–but to be fair, the torture was mutual.  I wanted dreadfully to be educated, to read poetry with ease and delight– “to waterski/ across the surface of a poem,” as Collins advises, to “bathe… play… [and] even join in on the gossip,” as Herrera suggests–yet the syllabus called for us to work our way through the Norton Anthology chronologically.  While I did feel a sense of mastery by the end of the course, it did not come easily, and I find that I still have an aversion to sixteenth-century British poetry.

Years later, when I had students of my own, I wanted for them what I had wanted for myself in regards to poetry.  It was important for me that we all acknowledge together that poetry can be hard, but that it didn’t always need to be taken so seriously, which is why I started them with Collins, of course.  They might not have enjoyed the experience as much as I did, but I assure you–no one was beaten with a hose.

billy ecard

How were you first introduced to poetry?

2 thoughts on “An Introduction to Poetry and the new Poet Laureate

  1. Pingback: The Thrill of the Hunt | Allikin Reads

  2. Pingback: A God in Ruins: All the Feels, All the Poetry | Allikin Reads

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