Who reads poetry anyway?

Most likely you expect that I’m going to answer the question in the title by saying “Not me. I don’t read poetry.”

If you’re a pedant — or if you believe that I am — you expect that I’ll say “not I.”

In any case you would be wrong. Surprisingly (perhaps) I do sometimes read poetry. Even though I’m a linguist, it’s usually in English, though sometimes in Greek or Latin, or very occasionally in French. Almost never in German, for some reason. And there’s no other language in which I would have the slightest chance of reading poetry successfully. So let’s limit the discussion to English, along with a soupçon of Greek and Latin.

Most adults first met poetry in school, probably in English or Language Arts classes. And maybe that’s why most adults don’t read poetry. They freely say that they dislike it, rather similarly to their attitude toward mathematics, and for similar reasons. But I also know many adults who like poetry — some even write it, including some math teachers. So, as a math teacher as well as a linguist, maybe I should start by answering the question that one student or another asks me every couple of years: “What kind of poetry does a math teacher like?”

Of course I can’t speak for other math teachers, but let me jump in with the most obvious (but perhaps not correct) answer. The two aspects of poetry that are most appealing are these:

  • the precise and condensed use of language;
  • the precise and consistent use of meter.

For example, how can a sonnet say so much in 14 lines? How can it all be expressed within the constraints of iambic pentameter? How does this resemble the structure and economy of a mathematical proof? It’s not only math, but the connections with linguistics are also obvious here — at least to me. So let’s talk briefly about two meta-poems, i.e. poetry about poetry: Marianne Moore’s self-referential “Poetry,” which varied from 4 to 38 lines in its various incarnations. In some of those versions it contained the memorable phrase “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” a phrase that I have quoted more than once in posts in this blog as it not only characterizes poetry but also science fiction and mathematics: successful science fiction creates an imaginary world, but if it is to be successful it must contain details that feel real, and mathematics is entirely imaginary and yet is filled with real toads that hop around in our “real” world.

Similarly (or differently?), William Wordsworth, who was very much “in” the real world, wrote a poem that’s relevant here: “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room.” Yes, it’s Wordsworth, though it has nothing to do with daffodils. Why, you may ask, would a Jewish linguist/math teacher be reading about nuns? Well, take a couple of minutes to read the sonnet from the link. I’ll wait.

OK, now you see that what we really have here is not a sonnet about nuns but a sonnet about sonnets, a poem about structure. Consider math — you knew where this was going, right? If you understand math, you don’t chafe at the rules: you either follow them or else find a compelling logical reason to argue against them. If you play tennis, you don’t play without a net. If you write a sonnet, you enjoy the constraints of 14 lines of iambic pentameter. Similarly with haiku. Free verse holds no appeal — at least for me.

OK, moving on and looking back, we return to that question from four paragraphs back: “What kind of poetry does a math teacher like?” As this post is already getting too long, so let’s cut to the chase. Limiting myself for the moment to English-language poets whom I studied in high school and occasionally read today, I take a cursory look at my poetry collection and 14 names that meet both criteria are revealed. (There’s a serendipity for you! Fourteen poets, one for each line of a sonnet. Somebody could write that sonnet, but it’s not going to be me. Nor I.) Anyway, here are the 14 poets — alphabetized, to save time since the more obvious order (chronological) would require research:


Who, I hear you wondering, are Herrick and Valentine? Herrick actually does fit the pattern that I will describe below, but Valentine doesn’t. Since you asked, I will give you a hint about why she doesn’t fit the pattern.

So what’s the hint?

I just gave it to you! (The first half of it, anyway.)

It’s in the pronoun I used. Normally we didn’t read women writers at Andover in the ’60s. Keep reading this post and you’ll see the Jean Valentine explanation. (The second half of the hint is that she is American. Go back and look at the list.)

I don’t think I want to comment on each of the 14 names nor why each one sticks in my head today. Let’s just say that the most frequent comment would be the connection to the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome, particularly Greece. Up until now this post has been sticking to English-language poets, but I would be remiss if I ignored the poets of ancient Greece and Rome, whose works took up such a large fraction of my readings in high school and college. The “standard” Greek and Latin curricula of the ’60s included Homer and Vergil, of course; and then we have well-known Latin poets such as Ovid, Catullus, and Horace. Catullus was the clear winner in that crowd, and our AP Latin teacher made sure we knew which poems were clearly forbidden. (We all read those on our own, of course.) We also read a lot of Latin prose, primarily Cicero. (I skipped Caesar. Long story.) Other than a huge amount of Homer, the Greek program was mostly prose, primarily Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, and the New Testament, though we also read poems from the Greek Anthology and many plays, most of which were in poetry. I am sure that my memory is full of gaps after all these years, but that’s what I remember.

Finally, I promised to come back to the American lit conundrum. There was no American lit in our curriculum of that time! None, nada, zero! In my senior year I was emboldened to ask one of my teachers why. “This is the English department, not the American department,” he replied.

That, of course, was weak sauce. He was implying that our English courses included only English authors, but that was flatly untrue: We read plenty of non-Englishmen, and I don’t just mean non-English Britishers from Ireland and Scotland: we read Ibsen, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and so forth, all in English translation. But no Americans. No novelists such as Steinbeck, Hemingway, Twain, Fitzgerald, or Wharton — and certainly not Baldwin, Heller, Updike, or Vonnegut. And, coming back to the subject of poetry, almost no Frost, Dickinson, Hughes, Plath, Stevens, Cummings, Auden, Pound, or Masters.

Any why Jean Valentine? That was because my AP English teacher, Dudley Fitts, complemented his published translations from Greek and Latin by picking the contemporary American Jean Valentine as his nominee for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and he had so much clout on the faculty that he could apparently do what he wanted. I still sometimes read her poems today.


Categories: Books, Life, Teaching & Learning