January 19, 2011

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Be a Man. Read a Poem.

Photograph by Gordon Ball. Copyright Gordon Ball.

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Ty Karnitz.

Poetry.

The word spawns images of dark coffee houses, bongos, berets, women with black hair and clothes, and feelings best kept private. The word has a stigma on it these days. Poetry is for angst filled teens and Hallmark cards. Today, poetry seems to be the antithesis of manly.

But it wasn’t always so. Poetry has been written and read by men for generations, reaching back thousands of years to the ancient Greeks, Sumerians, and even to the ancient oral traditions. Poetry used to be read and recited around a fireplace or in a cafe as a form of entertainment. And Theodore Roosevelt, an epitome of manliness, loved poetry, and as president gave government jobs to poets on the condition they do nothing but write new poems.

In the past, poetry was part of a gentleman’s formal education. Today, we’re taught poetry in school, but because it’s forced on us we reject it. We claim poetry is not for us men because poetry is emotional, and as men, we’re told from a very young age that emotions are not for us. Because of this, poetry can be difficult to approach for the modern man. Besides, we have other forms of entertainment that are more accessible.

Somewhere in the past century, our society has changed. Television, it seems, has taken poetry’s place. We as a society no longer need a bard to recite lyrics to us to keep us entertained. We have television and movies, and when we want to read there are always novels and short stories, or magazines or newspapers. So poetry has lost its place in the world and because of that, we’ve forgotten about it. But maybe the gentlemen of the past knew something we don’t. Maybe they read poetry not only because they didn’t have television but also because it did something for them, because poetry isn’t only about flowers and rainbows. Poetry is about war, friendship, nature, spirituality, and everything a boy needs to know about being a well-rounded man.

What Poetry Can Do For You

Or Why Should I Read This Stuff?

Our society is built upon the past. Western traditions are the foundations of our daily lives, even if we don’t always know it. Reading poetry, especially old poetry, can help the modern man better engage the world around him. In the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, the three most frequently quoted writers in the English language are poets: William Shakespeare, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Alexander Pope, respectively. You also find references to poems in books, films, and other media. O’Brother Where Art Thou is a good example of this. The movie was based off of Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. James Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses, one of the most prominent books in the last century, was also based off Homer’s epic.

By engaging in poetry, then, what you’re doing is educating yourself about the traditions of the men that came before. Reading it will help the modern man see connections to the past in our present culture.

Poetry can also be a great story, and you don’t have to read an epic poem that is hundreds of pages long to find one with an engaging tale.

Good poets can make their words immediate and profound and can make a man think about how he sees the world and what’s in it. They can pack the truth about the human experience into just a few lines, and make a man reconsider how he thought about life or nature. An inspirational poem might be just the right sort of manvotional for the day, too (Think “Reveille” by A.E. Houseman).

But reading poetry doesn’t just have to do with understanding allusions or bettering yourself. Comedic poetry is lighthearted and reading the poetry of Bill Watterson, the author of the Calvin and Hobbes comic can put you in a better mood. Shel Silverstein, the children’s poet and author of books like Where the Sidewalk Ends or A Light in the Attic, is also the author of some pretty interesting poetry for adults.

Poetry hasn’t gotten the stigma of love attached to it for nothing. Love abounds in poetry—if romance had a language, poetry would be it. Everywhere you look you can find examples of men who’ve used poetry to woo a pretty lady. In movies and on sitcoms we see men use clichéd poetry to win the heart of a lady. Unfortunately, in the real world, using clichéd poetry doesn’t always work. Today’s woman wants more, and if you can show her that you took the time to write your own poem, one that doesn’t go something like “Roses are red, violets are blue, and I love you…” you just might win her heart. Or perhaps you could find a love poem that speaks to you that not everyone knows and share it with her.

Reading poetry can be difficult and daunting. The language and structure is different from what we’re used to, and it also often rhymes, which can be hard to get past. If the poem is especially long, it’s sometimes hard to comprehend what you’re reading because the rhymes overpower the images, and you have to constantly go back and reread the poem to make sure you got it right. But by taking the time to read and understand poetry, you’re helping yourself build your comprehension, and that can help in all areas of your life. Reading poetry will work out those brain muscles, helping you quickly plow through those boring office reports so you can get done and on your way with life.

How to Get Started

Reading poetry shouldn’t become a chore, so if you’re uneasy about it or don’t want to tackle a volume of poetry all at once try reading a poem a day, or once a week. Make reading poetry a little ritual. Perhaps on Saturday mornings, read a poem over your first cup of coffee before moving onto the newspaper. And when you read it, don’t worry about dissecting it like you used to in school. Read it for fun, or as a challenge to yourself. If you like the poem, good, and if you don’t, move on to another. Even if the poem is one that everyone says is the best poem ever, if you don’t like it just move on. Don’t dwell on it and tell yourself, “I obviously don’t get poetry because I don’t like this poem, which is the greatest poem ever written.” Poetry is art; you’re supposed to have your own opinion on it.

You can buy a collection of poetry from any of your local bookstores or check one out from the library. But, if that takes too much effort, you can also browse websites that are dedicated to putting up poems, so you can read them for free. Try poemhunters.com or poetryloverspage.com, or just google the name of a poet and see what free poems of theirs are available.

Poets to Try

Obviously you should read whatever type of poetry interests you. If you’re interested in epics from the past you can read The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Illiad, The Aenied, or Paradise Lost.

Some poets to try are:

The Usual: Homer, Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, William Blake, Alexander Pope, Robert Frost

Some Others: W.S. Merwin, Billy Collins, Bill Watterson, Shel Silverstein

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What’s your favorite poem or poet? Share your suggestions in the comments!


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