Our Reading Lives

I Always Forget How Much I Love Poetry

Kit Steinkellner

Staff Writer

Kit Steinkellner is a playwright, screenwriter, and creative writing teacher. She also writes about books and reading  at Books Are My Boyfriends. Follow her onTwitter: @BooksAreMyBFs

The summer before I went off to college I took a class on 20th Century British Lit at my local university. My professor, who exposed me to still favorites W.B. Yeats and Philip Larkin, said, during our first class, “Poetry is for times of joy and for times of trouble, it’s for times when you can’t find your own words, or when your own words won’t do.”

“I’m going to read poetry every day for the rest of my life,” I thought to myself.

I didn’t.

Five years later, my youngest sister, in high school at the time, competed in our hometown’s Poetry Out Loud National Recitation Contest, the National Spelling Bee’s exponentially more soulful sister. She recited Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Time Does Not Bring Relief: You All Have Lied.” I cried like I was the girl in the poem being broken up with. The night was filled with the greats: Langston Hughes, Adrienne Rich, Nick Flynn, Emily Dickinson. It was a feast of words, the language deserved whatever the literary equivalent is of three Michelin stars.

“I’m going to go home and memorize so much poetry,” I thought to myself.

I didn’t… again.

I hate when I develop a pattern in my life and it’s a pattern that’s stupid and boring and sucks balls.

Throughout my teens and twenties, I kept forgetting I love poetry, remembering again, forgetting again. Every April (National Poetry Month) I remember. Every time I flip through the New Yorker, I remember. But then I forget! Argh! Grrr! More pirate sounds! Why?

I think it’s because poetry is not a summer blockbuster. And it is not a teen dystopian trilogy. It’s not that song that keeps playing every twelve minutes on the radio. It’s not the ONE Broadway musical you have to see when you’re in New York even if you can’t get half-price tickets at the Tix Booth. Poetry does not have millions of dollars bankrolling it. Poetry isn’t advertised on network television, there are no billboards, there’s no skywriting. It’s the one art form people go into KNOWING they will make no money, KNOWING there’s almost no chance they can support themselves on their art alone. It’s a form that is constructed with the bricks and mortar of love and love alone. Which is what makes it so unspeakably rad. It’s also what pushes it to the periphery of our collective consciousness. A poem is not going to pop up in a Google Ad. I do not think you will ever see an anthology of poetry promoted in a twelve-second advertisement you have to sit through before you get to watch your YouTube video. In a culture where art and commerce are often mistaken for the same thing, an art form without much commerce to back it up is often forgotten as an art form.

And we all collectively boo and hiss. But what do we do, I mean REALLY, what do we do about it?

I remembered I loved poetry again this summer. I was picking readings for my wedding, and I remembered again. My now-husband and I had each member of our wedding party do a reading. “Gate C22” by Ellen Bass was represented, as was Richard Brautigan’s “Your Catfish Friend,” Robert Bly’s “The Third Body,” and an untitled Rilke poem. And I remembered what my professor of almost a decade earlier had said, about words that will help you when your own won’t do. And it was true. Those words helped us have the most beautiful of days.

On a recent trip to my local bookstore Vroman’s, I picked up a copy of Garrison Keillor-edited Good Poems, a collection taken from Keillor’s daily readings on radio program “The Writer’s Almanac.” It’s a wonderful collection. It’s made me remember old favorites (Frank O’Hara! Anne Sexton!) and discover new favorites (Lisel Mueller! Wendy Cope!). I’ve been reading poems from this collection every day and my favorite ones I dog-ear and save to read to my husband. I read him poems while I ride shotgun in the car. I read him poems at the dining room table. He turns the lights out and crawls into bed and I grab a flashlight and read him JUST one more poem before we both fall asleep.

It’s only a poem or two a day. And it makes the day just a fraction better. And that fraction is felt, it counts, I don’t want that fraction to go away.

So maybe this is the secret to keeping poetry in one’s life. To make it routine. To make it a social obligation. To make it a gift that only costs a minute but feels priceless.

Anyone else out there a regular poetry reader/sharer? How do you incorporate poetry into your daily lives?


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