Keys to Poetry


Someplace along the education spectrum, children are introduced to poetry. They love it.


Then something happens. Poetry becomes the obtuse, and many kids feel as if they are not smart enough or that poetry somehow makes them feel less. They abandon it, resist it. These are terrible truths. Truths that happen because educators do not always know the keys to entrance themselves, so they are not able to hand over those keys that children need to enter into layered, intriguing poems. Too many teachers and students give up. This is tragic.

At a meet-the-teacher night a number of years ago, a parent came up to me at the reception and said, “I’ve heard you know poetry well. I decided to start writing poems again. I haven’t written a single one since high school. I think I need help.”


I encouraged the woman and asked why she suddenly started to write again.

“I don’t know exactly. I just know I need to.”

I thought of that need—that elemental impulse to dive into poetry even without the tools. How fundamental poetry is to our lives, yet too many abandon it early on because we feel somehow unqualified.


A couple of secrets: poetry is for everyone, and everyone has a poem inside. Another not-so-secret: it is not always easy to understand or make poetry. Having a few keys to unlock doors along the way helps enormously.


Key #1: As poet Mark Doty wrote, “metaphors are the advance guard of the mind.” Knowing how metaphors help us navigate to that other place and back again, being able to recognize, and then use metaphors are essential steps not only to poetry but to feeling equipped to finding our way through realms of thought. Jump into metaphors, swim around, and get comfortable with them. Play with them, invite them to dinner, even watch a movie together.


Key #2: Poetry is playing with our language. Children are fairly unafraid to play. Somewhere along the way, we become less playful, even embarrassed by play. Poetry asks us to juggle those symbols that make up our language, toss them back and forth, play hide and seek.


Key #3: Poetry wants to surprise us. When there is an unexpected gift outside the door, or it suddenly starts snowing in June, we are opening the codes of a poem. Learn catachresis and why it works in a poem.


Key #4: Poetry is like an onion with layers and layers to peel. Learning a few techniques along the way helps us discover what is beneath and what awaits discovery. The techniques are the tools we need. You don’t have to know them all

but knowing quite a few helps.


Key #5: We get better with practice. If you don’t strike out the first batter you face as a pitcher in a ballgame, you don’t give up. You practice your techniques. This is essentially the same with poetry. You practice with your language, learning new techniques until you can strike out a batter or appreciate the ascending arch of the homerun ball.

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