“I don’t understand it…but I can tell it’s good!” – Explaining poems to non-English majors

I have a friend who’s very smart and educated – but like many people I know, has a mental block when it comes to reading poetry. I don’t know why this happens. Maybe being exposed to Shakespeare or T.S. Eliot too early (really, did any among us have the maturity to appreciate Hamlet or Prufrock as a tenth-grader?). For many – maybe most – people, poetry is like a foreign language.

In the midst of preparing the manuscript for “Between Gods,” I was asked by this friend to create an annotated version of the book manuscript, with a two-sentence summary of each poem at the top of each page.  I’ve been in enough workshops to know that ideally, your poem should speak for itself, with minimum documentation to explain the subject.  That giving a “summary” means that the reader may come to some preconceived conclusion, and not bring enough of themselves to the poem.  That the writer’s job is to show, not tell.

I thought about all that, then thought, having these little summaries might be a good thing to do.  Maybe place each summary as a footnote at the bottom of the page, so those who want to read it can read it, and the purists can pretend it’s not there.  Like a teacher’s copy of a textbook, with all the “right” answers for those who need more guidance.  Might this decrease the intimidation factor and increase poetry readership?

Good or bad idea?

2 thoughts on ““I don’t understand it…but I can tell it’s good!” – Explaining poems to non-English majors

  1. No don’t bother, get them to visit my blogg and explain that if a short fat bloke with 1 ‘O’ Level Grade “C” can string a sentence together than they will be fine. Give them hope, show them they cannot write anything as bad as I do, disect my life, crush my dreams, I don’t care I live thousands of miles away we will never meet.


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