Hate poetry? Here’s why some folks don’t.

Every semester, I must convince two thirds of my high school students that poetry is worth reading. First, we cover the most common mistake with poetry: Do not read it like you would prose. A newspaper article that doesn’t

yield its meaning on the first read means the journalist hasn’t done her job; a poem that yields all its meaning on the first read means the poet hasn’t done her job.

Step 2: We examine two very different notes about my failure to cut the grass as a teen. First, my mother, then my father’s:

Dear Jim: Yesterday, you didn’t mow the lawn as you’d promised…so please try to get to it today. (Note: thundershowers expected late afternoon so get to it soon!) Love, Mom x x x x

JIM. LAWN. DAD

My mother’s note is clear on the first read, while my father’s, though terse, requires deliberation. What meaning lies within the three-word note? Student responses include “annoyance,” “exasperation,” “all business,” and “threat.” I say, “Congratulations: You now understand poetry.”

Step 3: We read William Carlos Williams’ much-anthologized poem “This Is Just To Say:”

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold.

I ask students to re-write Williams’s poem in a prosy style. They come up with something like this:

I wanted to let you know I ate the peaches in the icebox, even though you were probably saving them for your breakfast. Forgive me, but they were so cold and delicious.

Step 4: Now, a hypothetical: Imagine, I tell them, that you’ve come into the kitchen, and it’s 9 am and 89 degrees and humid. You find a note left by an older sibling — with the exact line breaks found in Williams’ poem. There’s a reason for these line breaks. Hidden in the pause one makes between. lines, poetry shouts out its meaning.

We again read William’s poem, this time pausing to look for meaning (in italics) between the lines:

This is just to say

What are you “just” going to tell me?

I have eaten

What have you eaten?

the plums

Those plums? My plums?!

that were in

the icebox

I know. I put them there.

and which

Uh-oh.

you were probably

Not ‘probably.’ I was.

Saving

for breakfast

Yes, for MY breakfast!

Forgive me

Are you kidding me? You’re not sorry.

they were delicious

I know! That’s why I was saving them!

so sweet

Now you’re rubbing it in.

and so cold

You’re not even remotely sorry.

Most students now see that Williams’ poem is dripping with insincerity. Class is over. Most students exit furious at their elder sibling, even though the latter has done nothing wrong.

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