All through April, in honor of National Poetry Month, we’ve been exploring Michigan’s poets with our series "Poetically Speaking."
But now, we turn to those of you who hear poetry and shrug. Those of you who never think to open a book of poetry. Those of you who say, “I just don’t get it.”
Alise Alousi is the associate director of Inside Out Literary Arts Project, a project that places poets and writers into classrooms around Detroit to work with K-12 students.
She thinks people who experience a distaste for poetry have “a misunderstanding of what poetry is.” Some might associate poetry with rhymes from childhood, while others might associate it with literature that flies over their heads.
Alousi believes it’s that ambiguity of poetry that helps children launch into literature.
“Our experience is that it often engages students who have maybe had some negative experiences around reading or writing to open the door to them, for poetry is often an inroads to their own exploration and opportunity to reflect on their own lives through language,” she said.
Lew Klatt, a professor of literature and creative writing at Calvin College and the Poet Laureate of Grand Rapids, has a different idea.
“Well, I think, my experience of myself and other Americans is that we’re pragmatists,” he said. “We’re very practical. We’re preoccupied with our jobs, with making money, with family tasks, with accomplishment, and we don’t really have the time or the patience for something as useless as poetry. But, I think that’s exactly what poetry requires. You have to sit with it. I tell my students that a poem is a tea bag. If you want the flavor, you have to let it steep, but most of us don’t have that kind of patience.”
Klatt went on to say that at an early age kids are taught to engage with poetry. However, as they grow older and immersed themselves more in the everyday world, more “direct, clear, logical, unambiguous” forms of communication become preferable.
Both Klatt and Alousi shared a favorite poem. Alousi’s poem was “Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye and Klatt’s was “The Tyger” by William Blake.
Alousi pointed to the repetition and playfulness of Shihab Nye’s poem, while also acknowledging the accessibility of it, showing that not all poetry is difficult to understand and contextualize.
Klatt emphasized the “musical charisma” and the “strong, muscular drumbeat” that drives it.
“Right when you’re enjoying the perfect agreement of sounds, he suddenly changes them up,” he said. “And I love the pleasure in that.”
Both Alousi and Klatt agreed that poetry should be read, memorized, played with. People should attend poetry readings and more to achieve a full experience of poetry.
“Poetry is a language event, and in a poem all that words can do is on display,” Klatt said. “We all work with words, we all even play with words, and I think poetry is a place where we can recreate. I think it’s serious play. I think we can celebrate the power and the versatility of speech and this is why it’s so valuable to us.”