Millennials are up against a few obstacles in terms of reading poetry. First, many of us learned poetry almost exclusively from classic examples. Additionally, we're often taught with the "tie the poem to a chair" method, which implies there is one correct meaning of a poem. Lena Dunham, a writer who has been called the voice of our generation, even had a character call poetry "a failure of an intellectual community," stating also that "poetry is a very stupid thing to be good at," which doesn't exactly generate millennial interest in poetry. Public intellectuals like James Franco give poetry a bizarre, celebrity-infused image.
Though these varied notions of poetry distance us from the words on the page and often sap them of their power, millennials should be reading poetry. When we look for and engage with it, poetry provides an intellectual challenge and allows us to become more contemplative in responding to our generation's most important concerns. Here's how:
1. Poetry is difficult.
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet.
I'll be the first to admit that poetry is a difficult genre. But this heightened level of intensity is why millennials should invest their intellectual effort in poetry. Plenty of us would agree that the most difficult things in life are often the most rewarding, and poetry is like that, too. Engaging with an art form that does not immediately yield its meaning and requires work on the part of the reader can teach us to remain content in uncertainty and to work for what is valuable.
It can teach us to be patient, to be willing to let things simply affect us without analysis, and to appreciate the simple beauty of language itself.
2. Poetry brings delight.
Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.
— Robert Penn Warren, "Tell Me a Story"
At the same time that it is difficult, poetry can give us moments of "deep delight." It makes what we think we know mysterious and new again. It brings disparate concepts together through metaphor. It doesn't sound like anything else we read.
Robert Frost wrote that a poem "ends in a clarification of life … a momentary stay against confusion." Perhaps most importantly, poetry provides these moments of "deep delight" through that "momentary stay" we often desperately want.
3. Poetry is urgent.
Since the war began I have discovered
(1) My Life Is Unimportant and (2) My Life Is Boring.
But now, as Gertrude Stein wrote from Culoz in 1943,
Now, we have an occupation.
— Lynn Emanuel, Noose and Hook
Millennials are notable because of their urgency. We debate each other and engage with political topics as part of our daily routine, and poetry often comes out of this type of urgency. Reading about political and social issues in poetry provides an alternative lens through which to think about them. By exploring what can be said about urgent topics specifically through poetry, we engage more deeply with our society's concerns, and this changes the nature of our responses to those concerns.
4. Poetry distills.
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
— W.S. Merwin, "Separation"
Merwin's poem is quoted here in its entirety. The poet uses only three lines to communicate grief through a powerful simile. In a world characterized by abundance, poetry pares back. In that way, poetry hands the responsibility of intellectual work back to the reader. When we read a poem like "Separation," we're left to allow its meaning to expand within our individual lives. Poetry doesn't give us our own answers, but it helps us become thinkers who can find them.
5. Poetry leads to contemplation.
Skin had hope, that's what skin does.
Heals over the scarred place, makes a road.
Love means you breathe in two countries.
— Naomi Shihab Nye, "Two Countries"
Ultimately, when we are immersed in it, poetry helps us think of our lives differently. It challenges how we think of time, what we mean by love, and what we value. It knows we're happy and sad at the same time amid the chaos of discovering our identities. It wonders what to do when expectations are disappointed.
It moves on. It admits not to have the answers. It provides some anyway. It reminds us of our responsibilities as citizens in the world: to engage with it, to think deeply about it and to interrogate it. By keeping close to a source of intellectual challenge, we tend toward contemplation — because, through poetry, we're given new ways to think. We're given the task of contemplation itself.
As Lynn Emanuel, and Gertrude Stein before her, put it, "Now, we have an occupation."