The value of old poems

Contemporary poetry assignments seldom receive negative reviews stronger than “not too bad,” but when assignments feature what some of my past students have labeled “thee-and-thine” poems, already-reluctant readers cringe.

I get it. Old-fashioned language, unfamiliar allusions, and the possibility of symbolism can scare even “A” students. However, older poems “stand against the conventional wisdom of today simply because they’re not from today…they say something different from what you hear all the time.” I am quoting essayist William Deresiewicz, and the italics are his. Although he was speaking to plebes at West Point¹ about old, “valuable” books, let’s assume Deresiewicz would allow that some of those books are poetry collections.

Think of these “something different” poems as similar to science fiction, or locked-door mysteries, or anime — when first encountered, the storytelling form might prove confusing to new readers. The author’s original message may be no more than a guess; words may have shaded, or even double, meanings; allusions abound, yet some details have been omitted; nonetheless, the clues for filling in the story are there for those willing to look.

Put on your decoder ring and reread. The language barrier between you and whatever poem you tackle is probably no worse than that faced by Cubs fans at a Canucks game. If baseball buffs can reorient themselves from dissecting busted triple plays to recognizing hat tricks, you can crack a poem’s code.

Older poetry isn’t perforce sentimental frippery, opaque and archaic. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) The truly great works, according to Deresiewicz, “have the permanent power to disrupt our habits of thought.”


¹ Deresiewicz, William., Spring 2010.