Why People Hate Poetry

In an interview with CUNY TV, Irish poet Paul Muldoon advanced his theory for why so many people, particularly students, struggle to understand and enjoy poetry. According to Muldoon, it has to do with the way that poetry is taught in schools: in high school, he says, students are given the impression that they will never be able to understand poetry without a teacher or other sort of “expert” there to tell them what they’re reading.

Muldoon makes a good point: most schools’ ways of teaching–not just poetry, but all subjects– cause students to doubt or neglect their own abilities. Because they, from the time they were waist-high, were spoon-fed their lessons, they become convinced that they cannot accomplish anything academic without involving a teacher. I believe college professors call this “freshman syndrome.” But this, I think, is only part of the reason why students struggle with poetry.

Like Mr. Muldoon, I believe the root of the problem is in how poetry is taught: in most schools, where one curriculum is expected to accommodate hundreds of unique students, the idea of “one-size-fits-all” rules the day. All children are introduced to poetry the same way and through the same works. The problem is that poetry, whether in reading it or writing it, is one of the most individual experiences in the world. Because it deals with thoughts and emotions in a way that no other sort of writing does, no two people will react the same way to the same piece of poetry, nor will two people react the same way to the same method of teaching poetry. For me, I disliked poetry intensely when I was taught from texts like “Tintern Abbey” by William Wordsworth and “Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish. However, when I was allowed to read Lord Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” and John Milton’s Sonnet 23, I began to take a liking to poetry. As my fellow blogger Fariba once wrote, “I am convinced that people who say they don’t like poetry have not yet found the right poem. When they do find the right one (notice that I didn’t say ‘if’) they will know.” I agree.

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8 thoughts on “Why People Hate Poetry

  1. I completely agree.. only recently when I started reading and exploring poetry myself is when I really fell in love with it.. otherwise I always thought it was something intimidating and inaccessible..

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  2. Great post!
    I agree with this point of view… too often teachers make students feel like there has to be one “right” answer, and give up when they can’t find that answer the during the first read through. I still suffer from this in some ways, it’s taking time to reverse.
    I also think it comes through an inability to slow down and let the poem wash over you. I have one student who really connects with poetry, which he never thought he would, because he will slow down and just read it out loud and perform it. He finds the patterns, rhythm and devices easily, because he slows down and allows himself time to reflect. Since we started poetry lessons with a variety of poets and styles, he’s fallen in love with them. My other student is highly analytical, will not read out loud and looks to me for an answer as soon as she doesn’t think she understands. She cannot connect to them, it’s like trying to teach a fish to fly… I’m not giving up yet though!

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    1. Thanks!
      I never thought of that, but that’s another problem with how a lot of schools approach teaching poetry: they have the students on such tight schedules that they barely have any time to just think about a poem and meditate on it. I’m sure lots of people would have a much easier time with poetry if they could study it at their own pace.

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  3. “The problem is that poetry, whether in reading it or writing it, is one of the most individual experiences in the world.”

    I’ve always thought this, which is one of the reasons why I hate the way critics look down on some poets (e.g. C.S. Lewis). Poetry is a form, more than any other genre, that is essentially subjective.

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    1. I agree. There has to be some criteria for what’s a good poem and what’s not (because like W. H. Auden said, if there are no rules, what’s the point of playing the game?), but more often than not, it seems that poets succeed only when they catch hold of the right people’s ears.

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