A poem is a path you were about to travel but were uncertain of the way.

In ancient times, poetry was an oral tradition, and poets were the storytellers. When poets began writing poems for the page, something to be read rather than heard, poetry lost much of its story-telling power and persuasion.

Professional poets began experimenting with non-traditional forms, and disconnecting style from content, causing everyday readers to feel as if they were working a crossword puzzle without the clues.

Then radio, television, lyrical music, movies, novels, and other forms of modern media further displaced the role poetry had previously played.

As we moved into the digital age, amateur poets began flooding the Internet with a raw, un-crafted flow of passion and pain, angst and anger. Poetry was beginning to sound like children carelessly pounding the keys on a piano.

In school, teachers asked us, "What does this poem mean?" instead of "How does this poem make you feel?" This find-the-meaning approach made it unlikely that people would read poetry after they graduated.

Poetry, in other words, is reaching fewer people because a large percentage of the poems written today are either appallingly awkward or annoyingly incomprehensible. Between those extremes, however, are poems that speak to the heart of things that matter. Poems that can evoke your thoughts and feelings, not just what the poet thinks and feels. Poems that can inform you about cultural and political concerns in a personal way. Poems that can inspire you by how they mean, not merely what they mean. Poems that can change your opinion of the role poetry can play in your life. Poems that can entertain you with sound and sense, music and meaning. Poems that can transform your perplexed What? into an ecstatic Wow! Poems that can lighten your heart like a firefly brightens the night.

When I was a child, I remember liking poetry because I didn't have to understand the meaning. Poems were just fun to read, as in... Hi diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle. In my teens I remember liking poetry because I could understand the meaning, as in... My love is like a red, red rose." In college I remember not liking poetry because it was either too silly or absurd to be taken seriously, or so dark and mysterious that I didn't care what it meant, as in... Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.

Later, when I was no longer encumbered by the need to write clear, easy-to-understand instructions for my students, I found myself turning to complex yet intriguing poems whose meaning was accessible if I were willing to invest myself in the poem as a participant, not as a judgmental spectator, as in... I am silver and exact, and swallow whatever I see immediately.

Have you abandoned poetry because most poems are too silly or absurd to be taken seriously? Too trite and obvious to warrant your attention? Too dark, mysterious and complex to unravel the meaning? Then you'll be pleased to hear that words go together in zillions of ways, and some of those ways are neither enigmatic nor trivial. You might also be more prone to read poetry, and get more from it, if you understand why poets write poetry.

Below are just a few of the many poems that demonstrate these traits. They are also good examples of a poet's ability to use ordinary language in extraordinary ways to show us familiar things in fresh new ways. You can find most of them on the Poem Finder website. Who knows? Some of them might inspire you to write a poem that conveys your thoughts and feelings about something that matters.

Billy Collins "Introduction to Poetry"
Charles Bukowski "I Met a Genius"
Robert Frost "The Road Not Taken"
Ted Kooser "Selecting a Reader"
Joni Mitchell "Both Sides Now"
William Stafford "Freedom"
Marianne Moore "Poetry"
Pablo Neruda "Poetry"
Slyia Plath "Mirror"
Octavio Paz "After"

As you read these poems and the ones below, keep in mind that implicit expressions require higher levels of attention than explicit expressions. So poetry requires a closer reading than prose. The result is to hear the rhythmic dance of words, the audible flow of sound and sense. Once that reaches your ears, it travels into your heart and mind where you'll be compelled to pay closer attention to yourself and the world around you. The following story is true, and helped me appreciate the importance of hearing poetry. I hope it encourages you to visit a coffee shop someday. Or a recital at your library.

Poetry Aloud

He walked to the microphone, sat down on the stool, and pulled a wrinkled piece of paper from his hip pocket. As he sat there reading his poem, I looked around at the other people in the coffee house. Only a few were listening to him. Everyone else was sipping their espresso and talking energetically with one another. He's not paying attention to them either.

He read his poem quickly, as if he were in a hurry. When he came to the last line of his poem, he slid off the stool and left the stage. That was the only clue anyone had that he and his poem were finished.

The next poet walked to the mic and set the stool aside. She didn't have a piece of paper, and her eyes were on us. She's paying attention to us, so we're paying attention to her.

She began slowly, deliberately, unhurried. In the first few lines, we all knew that she was speaking to us, delivering her poem from her head and her heart. Her voice was clear and fresh as a mountain spring. When the last line of her poem had left her lips, she paused momentarily, then stepped away from the mic. We all stood and brought our hands together in an enthusiastic round of applause. She thanked everyone with a smile and a wave and returned to her table.

Her poem was a simple, lucid story that had touched everyone in that coffee shop. She was a storyteller with her eyes on us, not on words she had written on a piece of paper. And we didn't need a degree in literature to understand and participate in the story she was telling. I hope you feel the same about the following poem. Just keep in mind that you'll feel like a participant, not just a spectator, if you read it aloud.


In this poem you've got savage beasts, smoke and fire,
stormy seas and sexy sailors.
But its alliteration is allusive, its rhyme is redundant,
its metaphors are mixed and it has
too many exclamation points !!!

But my next poem is a rocket to the moon!
A mighty arm against a sea of struggles!
My next poem won't just show you claw-filled tracks in snow
or shadows sneaking by your tent.

In my next poem you come face to face
with the hairy, scary beast itself!
You'll hear its savage snarl,
smell its rancid breath!
And feel its fangs filet your flesh!

In this poem your campfire glows
warm and friendly against the night,
its smoke drifting drowsily through the pines.
Wake up!
My next poem sets YOU on fire!
You ARE the firewood popping, burning bright!

This poem?
Just a lazy line floating on a lake—
slack and lifeless as a worm.

But my next poem? Peligro!
YOU are on the hook when the pole jumps,
when the line ZZZings.
Fins with eyes rise to nibble, bite—
take you to the bottom for the night!

In this poem you're cruising the Caribbean
sipping cappuccino solitaire without a care.
You're not on a cruise ship in my next poem.
You're in a storm at the helm of a puny little boat.
Your knuckles turn white, your skin blue,
every wave crashing down on you
fills your eyes with fear, your mouth with salt.

In my next poem
you lose sight of the shore for a long, long time
and ache for...wait!

You hear those Sirens of Odysseus?
Their lovely voices calling you
like a soft, seductive breeze?
Do you feel those nymphs embracing you?
Deliciously exotic in your hungry arms?
Can you taste their lips sweetly kissing yours?
Teasing all your thirsty dreams?

Of course not!
Take the wax out of your ears!
Untie yourself from the mast!
All that dangerous, sexy stuff is in my next poem
when you'll sing to the stars, dance in the rain
and sail home with tall tales and foreign spices.