Is poetry still relevant in this age of information overload, surrounded as we are by texts and tweets, Facebook posts and bloviating bloggers? Katie Peterson, a Tufts poet, believes the beauty of poetry and the skills it demands—especially attentiveness—make it more necessary than ever. In recognition of National Poetry Month in April—declared in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets—we spoke with Peterson about her favorite mode of expression.
Peterson, professor of the practice and interim director of creative writing in the English department, came to Tufts last fall after teaching at Bennington College and Deep Springs College, an experimental school in the California desert. This semester, she is teaching two poetry workshops.
Many of Peterson’s poems are about the American West. During a 2009-2010 fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute, she worked on a collection of poems titled Permission, which documents a series of road trips across remote Western landscapes. Among her awards are a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and a fellowship at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. A book of her collected poems, This One Tree (Western Michigan University Press), won the New Issues Poetry Prize in 2006.
Tufts Now: Why should we read poetry?
Katie Peterson: I think poetry opens our senses and minds to greater and nobler versions of reality. And poetry has a verbal beauty, which makes us more attentive.
There’s an instantaneous, explosive feeling that comes when you read a poem—a feeling of intimacy. I think everybody feels that desire for human connection, and I think poetry can foster that. It does that by fooling you into thinking it’s talking about you, when in reality, it’s giving a lucid account of someone else’s emotional state.
Who are some of the poets who inspired you?
Wallace Stevens and Emily Dickinson drew me in. Stevens has the same kind of philosophical doubt a lot of people experience when they’re young: Who am I in the family? Is there a God? What happens when I die? He has some of the most beautiful, liquid lines: “She sang beyond the genius of the sea”—the first line of “The Idea of Order at Key West.” There is an incantatory melody in that line.
The thing about Dickinson, which has continued in the tradition of American poets such as Mary Oliver [H08], is that there’s an interest in writing poetry about everyday life. Truly, poetry has always been in the business of the minute-by-minute recording of consciousness. There’s something about American women poets who really get it, and Dickinson is the foremother of this kind of poetry: getting up in the morning, making a cup of coffee and writing a poem.
Are students these days interested in poetry?
Students are interested in poetry because they are interested in living more deeply in the world. Poetry offers the opportunity to have an authentic form of inwardness amid all the distractions in this technological age. It’s amazing to me how little they’re called upon in our consumer culture to make a thing. When they write poetry, they’re not analyzing something, but making something.
How do you teach them to write poems?
Writing poetry can be very intimidating to students. They’re very smart and busy, and it turns out that writing a poem about forsythia in bloom feels astonishingly hard, maybe because they haven’t really looked at forsythia before. The attentiveness that poetry requires is something you have to commit to, and all the feelings in the world are not going to help you. Poetry is becoming interested in things that are not you.
There is also the craft. In one of my classes, we’ve been writing sonnets. One feature of a sonnet is the volta, a change of mind that occurs either in line eight or line 12, in both cases in a 14-line poem. Students discover that their feelings, when placed under the great pressure of this structure, have to be molded and pressed and tamed, and when that happens, the feelings become even more intense inside the form.
How do you teach your students to read a poem?
The first thing I do is teach people how to hear. I remind them that poetry is heard, even if only in the mind. The voice is very sensual, an almost irrational pleasure: you sit and listen. Reading a poem out loud and memorizing it are great tools. I ask my students to memorize poems, and it’s very hard for them, very humbling. When they have to memorize 14 lines of a poem, they find it difficult, because the skills are so rusty. I also teach them to read a poem as a formal structure: what a line is, what a sonnet is, what rhythm is. It’s a question of reading closely and attentively.
The form can feel very mathematical. The students look at sonnets, or a more difficult form, like the French villanelle, and it drives them crazy as I put it the form on the blackboard, and we look closely at the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, or the rhymes. It’s like seeing blueprints for a house.
What’s the best way to find good poems?
There is a website called Poetry.com, which provides you with a poem each day, almost like breakfast each morning. Poetry magazine is another source; it is the oldest established magazine of its kind in the United States, and has published all the major modern poets. I would also recommend a wonderful anthology called The Voice That Is Great Within Us, edited by Hayden Carruth. It’s an anthology of 20th-century American poetry.
Are there other ways to help students learn to love poetry?
You do anything you can. You buy them pizza.
Marjorie Howard can be reached at email@example.com.