The Truth About Poetry
I believe in the power of poetry. When it’s well written it’s clever, potent, and animated. It leaps off the page and begs to be quoted. Poetry offers us a chance to vent frustrations, radiate joy, capture a moment, and provide a voice for the creative spirit we each need to nurture. The truth about poetry is that it helps us make sense of the things that bond us all. Today, the absence of confining genre rules means we’re living in a time of poetic freedom that’s unlike any other period in history.
So what makes us want to be poets? Most of my students tell me they were inspired to try their hand at poetry based upon one or two sources. The first is the universally acclaimed poets we all know. They readily surrender the names of stirring scribes of yesteryear such as Shakespeare, Dickinson, Poe, and Frost. While some do cite Maya Angelou, rarely is any other 21st century poet mentioned—that is unless Tupac’s book of poetry counts. The second source of inspiration for my students is song lyrics from popular music. I find that numerous aspiring poets stumble into the genre by way of penning what they hope will someday be a Top 40 hit. Many of their would-be songs will never be set to music and so the most appealing backup plan is to turn their subject matter into poems.
What makes a poem a poem? Without batting an eye, poetry professors can cite the rules of fixed meter, rhyme scheme, and stanza breaks from a variety of poetic forms. They can also point out that poems that endure often speak about life-defining experiences such as finding or losing love, the death of someone who was cherished, or the search for the meaning of life. Yet what often frustrates beginning poets is that modern poetry is free from genre-defining rules.
What defines a poem in 21st century writing? What I love about modern poetry is that it takes whatever form we need it to. The time-worn belief that a poem has to be a set number of lines has become antiquated. So has the once popular credo that a poem’s subject matter must be limited to a fixed moment of time. Rhyming words are always appreciated, but they’re far from necessary. Simply put, the previously hallowed rules of form and meter have been replaced by the unyielding belief that a poem’s content must be cathartic, compelling, and consumable in a single sitting. We writers can feel free to use a handful of lines to capture the carefree joy of a summer sunset. It can take 50 if we want to describe the thrill of winning a contest powwow. We may only need 10 lines to memorialize a lost loved one, but with 30 more we can describe how the deceased prepared for the hereafter. In short, if we need more lines we can draft them, and if we don’t then no one will notice.
Are we living in a time that values poetry? Since modern poetry lacks all formatting rules beyond brevity, social media is a logical place for poets to hone their succinct writing. Many people quote poems in the signatures of their emails. Lines of poems also find their way onto many people’s social media homepages, and it’s not uncommon for others to comment about the wisdom these words capture. Twitter limits its writers to 140 characters and so its users become inherently disciplined in creating well-crafted lines. I’m not arguing that all posts or tweets are poetry, but rather that the technology we love can serve as a breeding ground for future poets.
So what does this mean for modern poets? It means that it’s time to start writing. There’s no time like the present to try to capture your version of lightning in a bottle. Write, perform, revise, and post your poems for the masses. Don’t worry about what it looks like; worry about how it makes you feel. Don’t fret about your format, but be considerate of your audience’s feedback. Don’t buy a rhyming dictionary; rather, challenge yourself to live in the moment your words are trying to capture.
The truth about poetry is that it has a place in our modern music, social media, and everyday life. Writing poems allows us to tackle a moment that demands to be reckoned with. The truth about poetry is that it creates a place for succinct writing to amplify the moments that make us human. Our generation has the freedom to write poems without confinement and we can’t let this freedom pass us by.
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.