Poetry For Beginners

Poetry For Beginners

by Margaret Chapman, Kathleen Welton, Reuben Negron

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Poetry is one of those subjects almost impossible to define as it can be so many things at once. It can be: kids whispering limericks on the playground; secret languages used by revolutionaries and spies; or the written strength of oppressed people. Poetry is how millions of people across time have used language to try to better understand love, hate, war,


Poetry is one of those subjects almost impossible to define as it can be so many things at once. It can be: kids whispering limericks on the playground; secret languages used by revolutionaries and spies; or the written strength of oppressed people. Poetry is how millions of people across time have used language to try to better understand love, hate, war, religion, oppression, joy, sorrow, sex, and death.
Poetry is one of the oldest forms of writing in the world, yet also constantly evolving. Despite its complexities, poetry is probably the way most people learned how to read. Poetry for Beginners is a fun, lively, and accessible guide, and expands one's understanding and knowledge of poetry through the ages.
From ancient Greece to the present, Poetry for Beginners traces the wonders of the written word and shows how it is relevant in daily life. 

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An excitement about poetry comes through on every page of this book... I found myself wishing this book had been around when I was in high school." — David Richo, author of Being True to Life: Poetic Paths to Personal Growth

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For Beginners
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By Margaret Chapman, Kathleen Welton, Reuben Negrón

Steerforth Press

Copyright © 2010 Margaret Chapman & Kathleen Welton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-934389-74-4


I, Too, Dislike It


Marianne Moore

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle. Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers that there is in it after all, a place for the genuine.

(lines 1-5)

What Is Poetry?

Poetry is the journal of the sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air. Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable. Poetry is a phantom script telling how rainbows are made and why they go away.

—Carl Sandburg, from Poetry Considered

Poetry is life distilled.

—Gwendolyn Brooks

Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It's that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that's what the poet does.

—Allen Ginsberg, from Ginsberg: A Biography by Gary Miles

Poetry is whatever poetry can be.

Poetry can be what a young woman says when she steps up to a microphone and spills her guts, and moves the room.

Poetry can be the world, observed from a window, written down in secret.

Poetry can be whispered limericks in the back of the playground.

Or the verse a young playwright writes to immortalize his mistress, behind the back of his wife.

Or kids making up rhymes, trying to outdo each other.

Or it can be the secret language of revolutionaries and spies.

Or it can be truth spoken to power.

Or it can be, simply, a place for the genuine.

It is one of those things that can be a lot of things.

What poetry has always been is a way for millions of people across time to use language to try to better understand love, hate, war, religion, oppression, joy, sorrow, sex and death—the whole human condition.

So poetry is huge. Really, really enormous.

And it is all over the place. It is on birth announcements and on tombstones; at presidential inaugurations and high school graduations; on the radio and on the Internet. It is in textbooks and prayer books; in the Bible and the Torah and the Koran and the Tao Te Ching. Poetry is written in notebooks and journals. It is carved into the blocks of ancient tombs and written on bathroom walls.

Poetry is one of the oldest forms of writing in the world, yet it is also fiercely modern and constantly evolving.

Poetry can be incredibly dense and complex, yet you probably learned to read by reading poetry.

Like many art forms, poetry is difficult to define. But let's try:

Poetry is writing that communicates intensely and intimately through and beyond language, using rhythm, sound, style and meaning.

Got it?

Poetry is intense, it is intimate, it uses language but it is more than just the words. It uses the rhythms, sounds, styles and meanings of the words to communicate.

We'll spend the rest of this book explaining exactly what that definition means.

That poetry is hard to define might be why some people find poetry intimidating. Many things we think of as part of "poetry"—emotion, love, rhyme, rhythm, line breaks, imagery—exist in lots of poetry, but certainly not all.

Which means that we can't tell you what poetry is by listing a set of component parts. So let's look at what poetry does.

"A poet's work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep."

—Salman Rushdie, novelist,

Independent (London)

At its most basic level, poetry is a form of literature that focuses language's ability to evoke feelings, ideas, experiences, not just to transmit meaning. Poetry is writing that does more than just mean what the words themselves mean.

Because poetry can mean more than just the words as written, poets have often been on the forefront of political, cultural and intellectual change.

When you read a set of instructions, or an encyclopedia, the language you read was chosen by the author to convey a pretty precise meaning. We chose the words in the text of this book first and foremost to give you information.

"A poem is true if it hangs together. Information points to something else. A poem points to nothing but itself."

—E.M. Forster, novelist, from Two Cheers for Democracy (1951)

While poets also want to engage and inform, poets look at language differently. Poets consider the sounds of words, the rhythms, the way words look on a page. They consider the symbolism of language, and the multiple meanings of words. They think about how the sounds and appearance of the words may affect you (the reader), how these things may trigger memories, or emotions, or images.

This means that not only does poetry contain the actual meaning of the words, but it contains a second meaning—it contains the meaning a reader gets from the poem.

So when you read a poem, you create the meaning of the poem. You are the one who makes the poem mean something. So for poetry to mean anything, you need to start reading it.

How Do You Read Poetry?

Try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet, trans. Stephen Mitchell

Like any sort of reading, poetry gives you access to ideas and experiences. When you read poetry, you get to peek into the mind of a poet, and see whether that person's experiences have any connection with your own, whether that person's ideas have a place in your life.

At some point in time, someone started spreading the rumor that to understand poetry, to know how to read poetry the "right way" you had to have all of this super-secret special insider knowledge about both poems and poets.

But that is just a rumor. Anyone can read any poem, anytime, anywhere. There is no super-secret insider knowledge. As long as you are fluent in the language the poem is written in, you can read it. And if you aren't fluent, you can probably find the poem in translation.

As you study poetry, you might gain information that changes the meaning you get from a poem, like what certain symbols might stand for, or which personal experiences a poet might be bringing into his or her work.

And while learning more about how a poem is created, and to what poets might be referring in their poems might make reading poetry more exciting, and give you new things to consider while reading, it doesn't make any meaning you get from a poem any more correct.

It might make it more fun.

Let's start reading.

Here's one of the most famous poems in the English language, Emily Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for Death—":

Because I could not stop for Death— (479)

Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
And Immortality.

We slowly drove—He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility—

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess—in the Ring—
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain—
We passed the Setting Sun—

Or rather—He passed Us—
The Dews drew quivering and Chill—
For only Gossamer, my Gown—
My Tippet—only Tulle—

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground—
The Roof was scarcely visible—
The Cornice—in the Ground—

Shorter then—'tis Centuries—and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity—

Read it? Read it again. Out loud. We won't listen.

How did the poem sound? On its surface, this poem is deceptively straight-forward. Though it sounds simple, even childlike, it is complex and highly crafted. The words produce a rhythm that guides you as you read. Dickinson repeats vowel and consonant sounds, and even little phrases at the beginning of lines. Sometimes she uses rhyme in expected places, sometimes she doesn't. But the rhythm is constant throughout.

Now say "Tippet only tulle" five times fast. A tippet is a shawl, and tulle is netting. Think about how "a shawl made of netting" is not nearly as fun to say as "Tippet only tulle."

She starts the poem with a little joke. Seems like she was going to miss her date with Death, but death went out of his way to meet up with her. How kind.

Emily Dickinson lived a solitary life, was never married and had no children. This poem seems to be her own reckoning with mortality; she imagines death as a journey to eternity. And it is hard not to think, with the poet in her gown and tulle, of a nineteenth century bride on her wedding day, being taken to her new house. Only this house is just "A Swelling of the Ground."

Notice how she uses dashes. That was Dickinson's trademark punctuation. Those dashes feel like they mean connection, not ending. So why does she end her poem with a dash? What comes after eternity?

Modern-day poet Billy Collins couldn't resist putting himself in the poem as Emily's groom. In "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes," he helps her with that tippet.

First, her tippet made of tulle, easily lifted off her shoulders and laid on the back of a wooden chair. (lines 1–3)

Mortality is a common subject in poetry; Dickinson's poem is particularly effective because it combines humor with a kind fatalism or acceptance of death, and because these ideas play out in easy rhythm and simple images.

You should read the poem out loud one more time, after we picked it apart.

This is the unique capability of poetry-to combine the ideas, sounds, and the look of language in affecting and enticing ways, so that as we read poetry, the poem becomes not just the sum of its parts but an experience.

But over the course of history, poets have written in almost every possible way about almost every aspect of the human condition.

Which leads us to ask ...

Where Did It Come From?

Poetry is one of the oldest forms of writing in the world. In fact, poetry is probably even older than writing itself.

The oldest known poetry was most likely sung, or chanted. Ancient poets used poetic techniques like rhyme and rhythm to make their poems easy to memorize.

The oldest known writings in the world are accounting and law codes—records of what people owned, and what they could and could not do. After people figured out the basic business of keeping track of things, they started using writing to record those poems they had been just memorizing and repeating for so long.

Example of poems that were probably written down long after they were first repeated:

The Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Mesopotamian poem about King Gilgamesh and his friend Enkido, is the oldest known poem, from around 2000 B.C.E.

Tablet X, column V

How, O how could I stay silent, how, O how could I keep quiet?
My friend whom I love has turned to clay:
Enkidu my friend whom I love has turned to clay.
Am I not like him? Must I lie down too,
Never to rise, ever again?
trans. Stephanie Dalley

The Hebrew Tanakh, and the Old Testament from which it is derived, are written in poetic forms. "The Song of Solomon" is a highly symbolic (and some say erotic) love poem.

Song of Solomon 2:10–13

My beloved spoke, and said to me,
"Rise up, my love, my beautiful one, and come away.
For, behold, the winter is past.
The rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth.
The time of the singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
The fig tree ripens her green figs.
The vines are in blossom.
They give forth their fragrance.
Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away."

World English Bible

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey date from at least 900 B.C.E., and were recorded around 300 B.C.E. The Iliad focuses on Achilles and his struggle against Agamemnon during the attack on Troy. The Odyssey follows Odysseus (hence the name) and his ten year journey home from war to keep his wife Penelope from remarrying.

Book 5, 229-33

I long for home, long for the sight of home. If any god has marked me out again for shipwreck, my tough heart can undergo it. What hardship have I not long since endured at sea, in battle! Let the trial come.

trans. Robert Fitzgerald

Shi Jing (Classic of Poetry or Book of Odes), is a collection of poems said to have been edited by Confucius. The oldest surviving version is from around 200 BC, but some of the poems may be 1000 years older, like this one:

Chapter I, Section 9. Ode 7

Large rats, large rats, let us entreat
That you our millet will not eat.
But the large rats we mean are you,
With whom three years we've had to do,
And all that time have never known
One look of kindness on us thrown.
We take our leave of Wei and you;
That happier land we long to view.
O happy land! O happy land!
There in our proper place we'll stand.

trans. James Legge

Norse Poetic Eddas These poems about Norse gods and goddesses were probably sung all over Viking territory in the Dark Ages, before they were finally written down in Iceland in the thirteenth century.

In the poem "Hávamál," Odin explains the nature of love.

Poetic Edda, "Hávamál" 92–94

Soft words shall he speak | and wealth shall he offer
Who longs for a maiden's love,
And the beauty praise | of the maiden bright;
He wins whose wooing is best.

Fault for loving | let no man find
Ever with any other;
Oft the wise are fettered, | where fools go free,
By beauty that breeds desire.

Fault with another | let no man find
For what touches many a man;

Wise men oft | into witless fools
Are made by mighty love.

trans. Henry Adams Bellows

As poetry developed into a written form of literature, as opposed to a memorized form, people started reading it and then they started studying it, trying to figure out what was the best way to read it and what made a poem good or bad.

This sort of study is called poetics.

One of the first scholars of poetry, Aristotle (a Greek philosopher who had something to say about everything) wrote a sort of defense of poetry after his teacher, Plato, claimed that poetry was morally suspect.

In his book Poetics, Aristotle divided poetry into three categories: Epic, Lyric and Dramatic.

Epic poetry told a long story, with an important hero.

Lyric poetry was sung and accompanied by the lyre, hence the name.

Dramatic poetry was performed as a play.

For Aristotle, good art imitated life, and the best art did the best job of imitating. The best poetry used story, language, rhythm and harmony to conjure emotions of fear, sorrow and pity in the reader or audience, feelings so intense that readers and/or audience members would feel purged or cleansed of negative emotions they had experienced through imitation.

Aristotle called this purge catharsis.

This idea was the biggest in European and Middle Eastern poetics for more than 3000 years. Until John Keats.

(Between Aristotle and Keats were a number of very important poets and scholars with many ideas about poetry. We're skipping them for now.)

Right before Christmas, 1817, Keats wrote a letter to his brothers George and Thomas about how to read poetry. In the letter, Keats expressed his feeling that the best poetry is ambiguous and allows room for uncertainty.

Keats thought that poetry, more than any other art form, allowed space for the reader to feel unresolved, for meaning of the poems to remain somewhat mysterious, and that being okay with mysteries remaining mysteries was closer to the truth of life than Aristotle's all-wrapped-up big-finish explanations.

Keats called this sort of uncertainty negative capability.

Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

–John Keats, Selected Letters

You could think of the difference between catharsis and negative capability as the difference between watching an action blockbuster movie that leaves you exhilarated and watching an art house film that leaves you intrigued and uncertain.

For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough)-they are experiences.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, trans. Stephen Mitchell.

And poetry exists today that does both. Contemporary poetry runs the gamut from very traditional forms like odes and sonnets to young adult novels written entirely in free verse to found poetry to poetry that is so experimental it is impossible to be read aloud to spoken word and rap that can be improvised in the moment instead of written down at all.

And Who Is It for?

If you got to talking to most cowboys, they'd admit they write 'em. I think some of the meanest, toughest sons of bitches around write poetry.

—Ross Knox, Cowboy Poet, Time magazine

Because there are so many types of poetry, trying to do so many things, from expressing love to starting revolutions to dealing with pain and sadness, there must be poems for everyone, in every circumstance. And if there aren't, someone will write them.

Poets themselves can be anyone. Shakespeare was an actor. William Blake was an engraver. Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda and William Butler Yeats were politicians. Poets Ted Kooser and Wallace Stevens were insurance agents, Walt Whitman was a government clerk, and William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician. Queen Elizabeth I wrote sonnets; so did soldier and privateer Sir Walter Raleigh.


Excerpted from POETRY FOR BEGINNERS by Margaret Chapman, Kathleen Welton, Reuben Negrón. Copyright © 2010 Margaret Chapman & Kathleen Welton. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Margaret Chapman is a poet, fiction writer, and educator. She received her BA in Comparative Religion from Dartmouth College and her MFA in Creative Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in December of 2006, where she was the recipient of the MFA Graduation Fellowship in Writing. Her fiction and poetry has been featured in Decomp, elimae, the2ndhand and as a Featherproof mini-book. She worked for four years through the Poetry Center of Chicago as a Poet-in-Residence in the Chicago Public Schools. in 2008 she was awarded the Poetry Center of Chicago's Gwendolyn Brooks Award for excellence in teaching. In addition to being a Poet-in-Residence, she was a teaching artist at Young Chicago Authors and she currently teaches in the English department at Indiana University South Bend.

Kathleen Welton serves as the editor of the Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin and it also a member of the Board of EDIS. 100 Essential Modern Poems by Women (co-edited with Joseph Parisi) was published by Ivan R. Dee (2008), and was selected as a Benjamin Franklin Award Finalist in the category of Poetry. She is a member of the Academy of American Poets, the Emily Dickinson International Society, IBPA, the Independent Book Publishers Association, the Poetry Center of Chicago, the Poetry Society of America, and the Stanford Alumni Association. She has a BA degree in English and Italian Literature from Stanford University.

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