Christine Heppermann uses fairytale characters and tropes to explore how teen girls are taught to think about themselves, their bodies and their roles in society in her new book POISONED APPLES. She doesn't do this in the form of a novel or short story collection, though --- she uses 50 poems! Below, she explains why she thinks people are bit afraid of poetry...and why they shouldn't be.
Poetry doesn’t stalk summer camp counselors with a machete. It doesn’t drag its horrible hook across the doors of cars parked on Lover’s Lane. Still, it scares people.
A test: I tell you to read 10 poems --- ready, set, go. Is your gut reaction closer to “Yay!” or “Eek!”?
I thought so.
Poor, misunderstood poetry. It doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but that’s its reputation, partly derived from the morgue of high-school English, where sonnets and sestinas are rolled out like pickled corpses for examination. No wonder students run screaming. They’re often led to believe a poem must be dissected rather than enjoyed, that it’s not even possible to understand poetry without learning a whole new vocabulary of terms like “anapest” and “trochee” and “pentameter.”
Or folks have the impression --- from Hallmark? Again from school? --- that poetry is all about Feelings with a capital “F.” That it’s gooey and sweet, like a marshmallow. (I hope you’re picturing a psychotic marshmallow wielding a machete right now, because I sure am.) Poetry seems fine for, say, wooing Juliet in the moonlight, but otherwise irrelevant to everyday life.
My young adult poetry collection POISONED APPLES: Poems for You, My Prettyhas received some very nice online comments and reviews, for which I am grateful. Yet I’ve been struck by the sizable number of very nice commenters who begin with a version of, “Normally I don’t like poetry, but…” Of course I’m glad they consider my book an exception to their rule, but I also find myself wishing I could change their rule. I wish they’d realize that saying they don’t like poetry is akin to saying they don’t like novels or cookies or people. Not all novels are alike. Not all cookies are alike. You may THINK you don’t like people, but have you met Trish? Trish is great!
A poem, at heart, is just another way of telling a story. When reading or writing a poem, I take many of the same literary elements into consideration --- voice, theme, setting and so on --- as I do when reading or writing prose. I want the voice to engage, the theme to surprise, the setting to transport. Most importantly --- and this may seem to contradict what I said earlier, but let me explain --- I want the poem to make me feel something. I want it to rearrange my molecules, if only for a few shivery seconds. The fear of Feelings in poetry is really, I think, the fear of sentimentality, and sentimentality is a lack of genuine emotion, a hollowness which all the pretty, pretty imagery in the world can’t fill. A good poem achieves the opposite: layer upon layer of treasure.
And you know what? It’s okay if you don’t understand every word and every nuance of meaning. In 1973, poet Kenneth Koch published his now-classic teaching guide ROSE, WHERE DID YOU GET THAT RED?, based on his experience sharing poems by Shakespeare, Whitman, Blake, Keats, Dickinson and other greats with students as young as third grade. Presented in conjunction with writing lessons, the poems didn’t confound or intimidate the children. Rather, they inspired them to create fresh, super-fantastic poetry of their own. Sure, the syntax and some of the language in William Blake’s “The Tyger” wasn’t immediately familiar. But with a little help the kids appreciated what Koch pinpointed as “the main feelings in the poem --- fear, amazement and wonder. Blake looks a magnificent creature right in “the fire of [its] eyes” and marvels at its existence. How cool is that?
Koch’s students approached poetry with enthusiasm because no one told them they weren’t supposed to like it. And because they said “Yay!” instead of “Eek!,” they discovered the myriad possibility of the form. A sixth grader in one of Koch’s classes put it this way: “You can express feelings non-feelings trees/ anything from A to Z that’s why/ IT’S GREAT STUFF!”
Christine Heppermann is a writer, poet, and critic. Her first book, CITY CHICKENS, is a nonfiction story about a shelter for abandoned and unwanted chickens in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her poems are published in 5AM, The Magazine of Contemporary Poetry; Poems and Plays; Kite Tales; Nerve Cowboy; The Mas Tequila Review; and The Horn Book Magazine.