Poetry for People Who Aren’t Sure About Poetry

Three questions with poet, professor, and podcast host Joanne Diaz, J94, about the pleasures of verse

Too many people feel intimidated by poetry, says Joanne Diaz, J94—and with a podcast, she’s hoping to change that by making poems more accessible.

Diaz, an English professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, and Abram Van Engen, a professor of English at Washington University, began the Poetry for All podcast in the fall of 2020. It is now ranked among the top 10% of podcasts worldwide by listenership, according to Listen Notes.

In each episode, Diaz and Van Engen read a poem, discuss it in detail—unraveling meaning and poetic methods—and read it again. They don’t shy away from difficult works. In one episode, they take on John Milton—the 17th-century author of Paradise Lost—and make his work eminently approachable. And they highlight poetry of the current moment, too, reading and discussing verses by Amanda Gorman, the first national youth poet laureate, who read at President Biden’s inauguration.

“We wanted to create a podcast series that would be useful for someone who’s a little ambivalent about poetry, maybe a person who hasn’t read a poem since high school or college. They’re walking their dog for 15 minutes and they want to be transported for that short time,” says Diaz. “Those are the people for whom we made this podcast. That helps us frame our questions for each other, and our conversation about each poem.”

Diaz is the author of two books of poetry and winner of the 2022  Kemp Foundation Award for Teaching Excellence at Illinois Wesleyan, where she has taught since 2008.

She says her time as an undergraduate at Tufts led directly to her life as a poet and teacher. Poetry writing workshops with Marie Howe and Deborah Digges were inspirational. “They taught me everything about contemporary poetry early on, and provided models for how to live a creative life that were inspiring to me,” she says.

Tufts Now recently spoke with Diaz about what poetry means to her, and how we can all learn life lessons from the words of others.

Tufts Now: Are there things that can be expressed in poetry that can’t be expressed in prose?

I don’t know if I can make that division—some of my favorite poems are the ones that travel the line between prose and poetry, and show me the excitements of both.

A book that I’ve taught many times over the past few years is Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric—the title seems to promise a book of poems, but it’s also categorized as a book of essays. Some of the poems do look like poems on the page, but many are more essay-like, sort of hybrid in form.

This flexibility in structure allows her to examine a lot of historical and political terrain in really powerful ways. In one podcast episode, Abram and I discuss this line between poetry and prose in some detail when we focus on Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Gate A4.” Most of my favorite poets travel that line between lyric and narrative.

Listen to a recent episode of the Poetry for All podcast.Listen to a recent episode of the Poetry for All podcast.

That said, I love lyric poets who can create a snapshot of emotion in the frame of a sonnet or a villanelle, or just a few little tercets—a poetic unit of three lines—on the page. What’s beautiful about the sonnet, for example, is that it’s a portable, easy-to-memorize, song-like utterance that gives you this insight into deep human feeling.

A sonnet can be incredibly complex, even as the poet aims to achieve the clarity of a bell. For example, each of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets explore desire, mortality, the passage of time, and literary reputation in various ways, and each individual sonnet is like its own machine or organism.

I don’t know if there’s any poetic form in English that is more resilient and appealing in that way. Maybe a single powerful, iconic photograph can do that. With language, I think only poetry can.

Do you have particular poets whom you return to all the time, who have a lot of meaning for you?

There are two poets I think of. One is Philip Levine—he is a master storyteller, but also a master lyricist. There was no one in American poetry who has been more sensitive to and attentive to the lives of ordinary workers.

We don’t write about work enough—we spend all our days doing it, and yet we don’t write about it enough. I find that so peculiar, and he did, too. He was a teacher of mine at NYU. When I read his poems, I can hear his voice and his sensibility.

The other contemporary poet I go back to again and again is David Kirby. He is probably the most joyful poet that I’ve ever read, and that’s not easy to pull off. I think it’s actually more difficult to write about joy than sorrow.

He’s also very good at creating arguments in his poems. For years, I thought that poems were meant to be primarily meditative and descriptive, but I didn’t really understand poems as arguments as well. David Kirby is very good at creating those arguments and doing so quite persuasively.

Some poetry seems to me to be willfully obscure, hard for the average person to comprehend. How do you teach students—and the wider world—to dig into poetry and understand it and care about it?

I am often frustrated by poems, too! I don’t always understand poems right away. In fact, that’s one of our goals with this podcast. Not only do we want to show that poets are often in conversation with each other, but we as readers need conversation, too, in order to delve into the meaning of poems. With each episode, Abram and I hope to show that we continue to learn from each other, and that never stops.

The obscurity that you’re describing is definitely there in some poems: The Waste Land [a 1922 poem by T.S. Eliot] needed so many footnotes in order for anyone to access it; and avant-garde poems by many other modernists like Hilda Doolittle—H.D.—can defy a quick reading. These are poems that demand a different kind of attention, and yes, initially, those poems may be difficult for us.

But other poems are immediately accessible and still contain layers of meaning. For example, when you read Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb,” you can see how eager she is to invite all of us into the poem. Wallace Stevens once wrote that “the poem is the cry of its occasion,” and Amanda Gorman’s poem is a perfect example of that cry.

It’s like a muscle. If you read more poems, again and again, it does get easier. When I teach my survey of English poetry, 1500 to 1700, the students just cannot access the first few poems—Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard. There’s nothing in the worldview of these individuals that has anything to do with the students.

But by the time they read dozens and dozens of poems, they’re seeing how these people are talking to each other. They’re seeing how these people are competing with each other and trying to outdo each other.

They’re seeing how, by the time Shakespeare is writing “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun,” he’s writing it because hundreds of poets have compared the eyes of their mistresses to the sun. He has to outdo those other poets in some way.

There are so many kinds of poetry for so many kinds of occasions that surely if one poem doesn’t work for you as a reader, another one will, because they’re made for so many kinds of purposes.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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