The Hocking Hills Festival of Poetry

The Power of Poetry


                I can remember that day in Wanda Bower’s Sophomore English class, when she wrote a short poem on the blackboard and simply asked us to tell her what it meant. Miss Bowers was a slim woman with a cornsilk grey bun and the most piercing blue eyes imaginable. She could easily reduce a 220 pound defensive tackle into a quivering blob of guava jelly with a look. The entire class, of supposedly advanced students, was petrified. Why did a seemingly simple question about a few sentences terrify us so?

                It may have been the setting –we were reluctant to look foolish to our peers. It may have been our imagined terror of how Wanda (I’m only brave enough to refer to her by her first name over 40 years later) would react to our ideas. Whatever was going on in those young minds produced a tangible silence that I can still powerfully feel today.

                I have heard many similar stories about how students were turned away from poetry. Poetry brought up such unpleasant memories. It was slippery and difficult to understand. It rhymed or didn’t. For some reason, despite all of this, I fell in love with the poetic word. Maybe I was comfortable in the realm of metaphor – where one thing is another. Maybe I looked at it as a challenge. Maybe I just loved the sound –like words rushing over a stream of smooth pebbles. In my teaching career I did my best to put poetry forth in this light to my students. Most came to enjoy it as I did. To not fear taking a leap into the unknown. To be comfortable in the misty realm that lies between right and wrong, a place usually forbidden in our test driven schools.

                In older times, poet/storytellers called bards roamed the land providing entertainment and disseminating knowledge. In some places they were respected as highly as royalty. They provided a balance to the usual and practical ways of thinking, transporting listeners to the boundless spaces of imagination and dream. We would be well served today to adhere to the old Celtic proverb: Before you give a man a sword, teach him how to dance (or write poems, or immerse him or herself in anything that allows getting closer to the depths of beauty and feeling that are one of the highest human callings.) It would serve us well to give poetry another chance. To look at it with fresh eyes and see where it takes us, without fear of having to know the right answer, or say something that pleases Wanda Bowers.

                Introduction to Poetry

     I ask them to take a poem

     and hold it up to the light

     like a color slide

     or press an ear against its hive.

     I say drop a mouse into a poem

     and watch him probe his way out,

     or walk inside the poem's room

     and feel the walls for a light switch.

     I want them to waterski

     across the surface of a poem

     waving at the author's name on the shore.

     But all they want to do

     is tie the poem to a chair with rope

     and torture a confession out of it.

                                                                                                                Billy Collins

                Billy Collins was maybe the most popular Poet Laureate of the United States and did much to put poetry into the mainstream.