Why I (Used to) Hate Poetry

Jane Desmond is a professor of Anthropology and  Gender and Women’s Studies.

Well, of course that isn’t really true.  I never really “hated” poetry;  I just actively avoided it.  Yes, I appreciated the occasional haiku printed in the newspaper, or the well turned line of a rap song, or a dynamic performance at a poetry slam…but I never sought out books of poetry. I never reached for a poem when it was time to read something other than the densely theoretical, closely argued (and oh so heavily footnoted ) academic texts that are my daily working landscape as both scholarly author and reader.  Leisure reading, for me, was usually a mystery novel, a reliably engaging, narrative piece of genre fiction with enough twists and turns to keep me interested (say, something by Henning Mankell, since I’m partial to Scandinavian writers, and once got to sit at “Mankell’s table” in a restaurant in Malmo, Sweden.) Poetry demanded too much attention, like literary novels. Somehow, I felt I had to “get ready” to read poetry. I had to clear my mind, marshall my resources, and function on all cylinders to enjoy the complex play of dense semiosis. Reading poetry was clearly too much work after a day of working.

This is why I shocked myself on vacation in Maine last summer by buying a book of poetry—totally voluntarily.  Reading it through, dipping in as into a box of chocolates…testing out each poem.  Poking the edges to see if I liked it.  Then, coming home, I went on-line and bought every other book of poems written by my new favorite poet. When they arrived, I read each and every poem in each book, a few each evening, like a dessert at the end of the day.  I fantasized about writing poems myself.  This was another totally out of character event for a person whose last written poem was one she published in her high school literary magazine decades ago.  I even (get this), went on-line to see if my new favorite poet was teaching writing in a summer workshop somewhere so I could study with him. (Unfortunately, no, for he is busy right now being the Poet Laureate of Maine.)

What was it about these poems that turned me into a poetry reader and buyer? There was a combination of bite-sized ness that made them seem alluring, not exhausting. I didn’t have to “get ready” to read say, a sonnet, or a poem of ten pages. These were one, two pages at the most.  And each had a concrete image that grabs the reader, hooks her into a journey of thinking and feeling, and then takes a swift twist at the end , a sort of dancing contre temps that flips the line of thought from the minute detail to the large scale, the concrete to the symbolic. That little mental gymnastic move gave me the great pleasure of surprise and reflection with each poem.

Photo of Stuart Kestenbaum

Stuart Kestenbaum

The poet is Stuart Kestenbaum. It is no accident that for nearly three decades, right up until about a year ago, he directed the Haystack School of Crafts in Maine—one of the leading crafts schools in the country. I found his books when I visited Haystack last summer. It is place of concrete creation united with daring imagination…a mind-opening place perched above a stunning ocean cove, where artists craft beautiful surprising things out of humble everyday materials like cloth or willow or clay. Kestenbaum too starts with the humble, the concrete—the welcomed warmth of a coffee cup in the hand, the whine of the straining engine of an old car trying to start in winter’s 5 below.

I wanted to put a sample poem in here, but copyright probably forbids it.  Still, it is easy to find many samples of his work on line, including at www.thesunmagazine.org,  and at writersalmanac.publicradio.org.   I’m not his only fan of course.  U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser says:  “Stuart Kestenbaum writes the kind of poems I love to read…heartfelt response to the privilege of having been given a life.” And there is a sort of grace in these poems, a deeply felt thanksgiving for that privilege.  The titles of these slim books, published by small independent presses, reflect that: Pilgrimage, House of ThanksgivingOnly Now, and Prayers and Run-on Sentences.  These books about giving thanks and making pilgrimages are not prayers in a religious sense, although Kestenbaum’s Jewish heritage emerges explicitly in some lines.  Rather, they are prayerful in that they speak about large forces moving in the world and beyond.  They capture moments of knitting together the tiny mundanity of daily actions and larger questions of existence that, if we listen as Kestenbaum does, always haunts those actions and gives them meaning, crafting a politics of relationally between people, among communities, and with the material world.

About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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