Michael Bourgo is an active poet and co-leader of the OLLI Writers Special Interest Group and has been offering OLLI courses since 2017. Michael recently wrote a column called “Enjoying Poetry” that appeared in The Centre Daily Times on Sunday, September 19, 2021. He’s the latest instructor to offer content for The Centre Daily Times Good Life section, which is featured the third Sunday of every month.
Poetry does not have quite the central place in our lives today that it once had. No poet today is as well-known as Robert Frost or Edna Vincent Millay were in their time. The art itself has unfortunately acquired the reputation of being obscure, difficult, and inaccessible. It’s lumped in with opera, string theory, and rocket science: one of those subjects that only specialists understand. A poem is a likened to a math problem to be worked until you find the one and only right answer.
However, at times of personal or public significance, people turn to poetry for hope, insight, and consolation. No wonder that we often hear a poem at a memorial service or a wedding — or that after the trauma of 9/11, people found meaning in Auden’s great poem, “September 1, 1939.” A good poem puts what we are feeling or observing into words that resonate. As Rita Dove said, “Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.”
There’s no question we can all appreciate and understand good poetry if we are willing to read carefully and think about what the words are telling us. Nevertheless, poets use a toolkit to get our attention and to place focus on certain points in the piece. We don’t need to become experts in prosody, but as in all arts, learning a few of the basics will enhance our enjoyment.
As a case in point, let’s look at Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb,” the stirring piece that she read at the recent inauguration. Ms. Gorman’s work epitomizes poetry’s origins as a performance art — though her poem reads beautifully on paper, it begs to be spoken. As we look at her text, we begin to notice how she puts poetic techniques to use for dramatic effect. A few examples: Ms. Gorman uses alliteration to create emphasis, shortens her lines to speed up the tempo, and turns to parallel construction and rhyme to bring it all to a glorious conclusion.
Good poetry does not have to be associated with weighty events such as inaugurations. There are wonderful poems about the quiet pleasures of riding the bus, walking around the block with a child, eccentric uncles, cooking dinner, or watching people in a park. There are wistful poems about lost loves and children growing up too fast, and heart-breaking ones about divorce, aging parents, and friends who died too soon. Whatever our experience, we can find poems that will present us with the gift of words that illuminate the feelings and experiences that we all know as human beings.
It’s easy to get started on the journey. All you need do is read a poem each day. You can do this with any one of the many excellent anthologies in print — or even more easily, try one of the many “poem a day” sites on the internet, which deliver via email. Your life will be richer with a daily encounter with a poem.
Michael Bourgo recently offered Good Poems for Tough Times and will present Poets We Should Not Forget, a selection of poems from the mid-20th century for OLLI. Keep an eye out for future courses on poetry by Michael or plan to join the OLLI Writers Special Interest Group. The Writers Group welcomes writers of all genres and skill levels to share their writing.