As self-proclaimed president and vocal advocate for the “I Hate Poetry Club,” I wasn’t entirely sure why I was hunched over a computer in the Fishbowl, mumbling 24 lines of impassioned Shakespeare to myself in rapid succession.
Nearby, the technology consultant tinkering with the jammed printer casted strange looks at me, but I pushed onward, tongue clicking over the staccato beats of “lusty stealth of nature.” My long-dreaded poetry recitation for English class was scheduled for 11:30 a.m. today — the first slot available. As I read, I cursed my cruel genetic disposition of becoming physically ill if I’m not the first one to sign up for something. The printer sputtered to life with a mechanical wheeze, and the polo-clad consultant shot me one last apprehensive look as they edged around my work station. I took another swig of my half-full Celsius and started again from the beginning.
I haven’t always hated poetry — writing has always been integral to my life. I wrote my first “book” when I was 6, though, according to my mother, it was basically identical to my favorite book at the time, “Barbie and the Diamond Castle.” Nevertheless, I fell in love with language due to the myriad of pictures you could paint from the patterns of 26 letters. Even in elementary school, I loved the way every string of words felt different in my mouth, from the soft, round circle of “carefully” to the steady beat pulsing through my full name. When I wasn’t busy shoving my newest novel in my classmates’ faces as we waited for our turn on the swing, I’d experiment with different arrangements in the margins of my math worksheets. They wouldn’t always rhyme, and they weren’t always be good — but they existed.
Things went downhill after a fateful rejection from my middle school’s literary magazine — apparently, the panel didn’t appreciate my handwritten note insisting they listen to the Pure Michigan theme music as they read my poem. I wrote the entire genre off. I had no use for such a stringent, high-brow mess of word vomit. To be “good” at poetry, you had to be able to sound smart, I thought. You needed to use big, fancy words that only scholars would understand. But they couldn’t be too big or too fancy, of course, because everyone needed to be able to relate to your poem. Your ideas also had to be abstract, bordering on a vague blob of posh, empty nothingness, but, of course, still universal, completely unpackable.
Of course, this passion against the horrors of poetry wasn’t unique to me. I’d heard whispers, groans and general lamentations echoed by family, friends and classmates. “Poetry’s just so boring,” the girl next to me in my 10th grade English class would say as our teacher listed a never-ending glossary of terms to remember: consonance, anaphora, epistrophe. I agreed. It’s just a bunch of gaudy words arranged in a certain order. Anyone could do it — even an animal, for example. The longest signed sentence by a chimpanzee — called “Nim Chimpsky” after the famed linguist Noam Chomsky — was 16 words. Surely there was a rhetorical device one could find in his stream of repetitions of “give orange me give eat orange.” If a chimp named after a linguist could produce something with interpretable rhetorical significance, then there really was no reason for anyone to waste too much energy trying.
But, after spending hours reading, speaking, chewing and understanding this poem for my English class recitation, I was suddenly conflicted on what I now thought about the validity of poetry and its value. Here I was, on hour three in the Fishbowl, reciting this poem purely, at least, originally, for the points toward my grade. To be honest, I felt changed. Not by much but just by a little bit. And no, it wasn’t the aftershock of the 200mg of caffeine that I had pumped into my body.
I felt like I had just woken up. Something had sparked to light inside me — tiny but bright. I wasn’t quite sure what it was, or where it had come from. All I knew was that I was excited to pay closer attention to the biweekly poem analyses in my creative writing class.
Since that poem recitation, I’ve been attempting to sift through the conflicting storm of feelings and insecurities brewing inside me. Do I actually like poetry now? Or did I like the satisfaction of performing something “hard” really well? Oh god, am I going to have to wear a beret now? But why, exactly, would it be so bad if I did like poetry? Plenty of poets were respected in the literary canon, and it was a serious genre. I wasn’t embarrassed of my poetry passion because the genre was “silly.” After all, 111 courses in the LSA Course Guide mention “poetry” somewhere in the course description.
My hesitancy was due to the fact that — as I found after encroaching on hour 13 of reciting the stanzas — I wasn’t good at it. I couldn’t write (or read) something perfectly like Shakespeare. I’d never expect my friend or classmate to produce a flawless piece of free verse on the first try, but that didn’t matter. Because I should be able to. To truly like poetry — to consider myself an amateur poet — I had to be able to do it perfectly on the first try. The poetry assignments that I spent hours pouring over — changing “great” to “brilliant,” “yellow” to “buttery gold” — were “just alright” in the eyes of my English teachers. So, I was a failure. I had no business even trying to squeak out a couplet, let alone appreciate it. How could I call myself a writer, a lover of language, if I was so terrible at the foundational practices of the craft?
Spending hours and hours memorizing and muttering that 24-line soliloquy was the most time I had ever spent engaging with a poem. It’s one thing to circle all the metaphors in a poem on a piece of paper. It is another thing to wear circles into your room’s rug as every line engraves into the grooves of your mouth and you viscerally experience the poem. No longer was I Charlotte Parent, overcommitted student in Ann Arbor. I was the forgotten son, scorned into scheming for my rightful inheritance. I stood up for bastards. Just for a second — just for a moment — I could slam my laptop down, close out all my tabs, and give my mind a break.
Recently, I had the chance to speak with Jennifer Sperry Steinorth, a lecturer in the English Department Writing Program and the School of Art & Design. As we sat together on Zoom, discussing how one can develop an appreciation for poetry, Steinorth explained, “There’s this wonderful saying that certain things speak to you at certain times, or that the same poem can speak to you in different ways at different times.”
“It’s just like a piece of music — liking poetry depends on what you’ve experienced, and what you’re experiencing in your life,” she explained, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
“But if you’re like, ‘Yeah, I’ve tried poetry, and it’s not for me,’ then I would say, you know, say yes if somebody gives you the option of going to a (poetry) reading, or something similar. It’s kind of like saying, ‘I don’t like music.’ Everybody likes music. Just not everybody likes baroque. Not everybody likes country western. But there’s something in poetry for you,” she concluded.
Steinorth’s last line stayed in my mind well after I shut my laptop. Since then, I have been working to unlearn my negative attitude toward poetry. I was comfortable hiding behind my “anti-poetry” perspective just because I wasn’t great at producing it. I couldn’t have a “shitty first draft,” to cite one of my favorite books, Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird.” Everyone, Lamott says, from children scrawling in a notebook to the literary greats, has shitty first drafts. That didn’t apply to me, I thought. I had to be perfect right from the start. In holding myself to such a high standard through the creative process, I was preventing myself from creating anything at all.
There is something in poetry for me. There is something in poetry for Steinorth. And there might even be something in poetry for you. I acknowledge that enjoying poems can be an acquired taste — I can certainly vouch for that.
But poetry is neither a riddle nor a problem to be solved. It’s simply meant to be. After all, when a baby is born, the first thing it hears is the heartbeat of its mother. A soft thudding. A ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, with a stress on the first beat. Short-long, short-long, short-long, short-long, short-long. The first thing we hear, and the last thing that stays with us, the thing that makes us so painfully, wonderfully human, is the pattern of iambic pentameter. Perhaps anyone and anything can create poetry, and perhaps therein lies its beauty.
In the aftermath of this epiphany, after unearthing a long-dormant appreciation for poetry, I bought myself a journal. Stamped across the polka-dotted front is my name in cursive script. It’s something middle school Charlotte would carry around with her like a third arm. I fill the moments between classes jotting down phrases, patterns, thoughts and ideas that come to me. I embrace the messy mosaic of the language and allow myself to be bad at it. Most of the time, my scribblings don’t rhyme, and they aren’t very good. But they exist.
I’m no longer fit to be the president of the “I Hate Poetry” club. Consider this my official resignation from the role.
Statement Part-Time Writer Charlotte Parent can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.