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Why You Should Read Poetry: A Look Inside a Contemporary Poetry Course at UMSL

By: Erica Patton

During the Fall 2023 semester, I had to take a poetry course to fulfill my honors college credits. Though it was not my first choice for a class, I went into the course with no knowledge of poetry whatsoever and a completely open mind. At first, like many others, I saw poetry as being very pretentious. However, I quickly learned that poetry holds a much deeper meaning than I ever imagined. This class completely changed my outlook on these literary works. 

Image taken from MassArt Blog

The Contemporary Poetry course, taught by Professor Glenn Irwin, was led with passion and complex thought. The Professor displayed his ability to connect with the class by allowing students to freely express their thoughts, opinions, and questions about various poets and poetry pieces. One thing I enjoyed most about the style of this course was the honesty that came with the class discussions. While students were encouraged to comment on pieces they loved, Professor Irwin and classmates did not hesitate to comment on poems that we did not favor or even understand at times. 

One of the very first poems I found that I enjoyed was called “Persimmons,” by Li-Young Lee. It was a poem that highlighted the importance of perception, family ties, and disconnect from others due to cultural assimilation. While the poem was lengthy and took a minute to fully digest, this was the first time I felt like I understood the true beauty that poetry has been showing for many years. 

If you’re a first-time poetry reader like I am, you may be wondering, “why should I even care about poetry?” and honestly, I still have this question myself. However, one of the main reasons why poetry is so important, especially to students, is the connections we can draw from works. Stephen Dunning’s journal article “Why Poetry?” dives into the various concerns and reasons as to why teaching poetry in the classroom setting is important. He explains that “students will not identify immediately with the “people” and the “situations” in poems. But stories and plays tend to draw the reader into an emotional identification with character or situation. On the other hand, poems keep a lens of linguistic uniqueness between reader and experience. Prose tends to give readers conventional realities, however artistically arranged; poetry gives students enough distance from reality that they can deal objectively with it,” (Dunning, 1966, p. 159). 

Credit: Memedroid

While poetry does correspond similarly to how books create a sense of theme and purpose for the reader, this is ultimately dependent on the reader’s individual experience, which is what makes poetry so interesting and important. The way we perceive ‘good’ poetry may be the same way we evaluate ‘good’ literary works; what pieces can we actually connect with and draw conclusions from. 

So yes, there still are pretentious pieces out there that will make you think to yourself “I could have written this". But delving more into the thoughts and emotions provoked from specific poetry pieces is what ultimately matters, and is what ultimately led me to want to read more poetry.

You do not have to be some grand intellect who only speaks in a language that sounds impressive to get poetry, and you certainly don’t need to be living in the 19th century to love poetry, nor be a great writer yourself. However, having an open mind will help you find pieces that speak to you, and maybe even persuade you to write some pieces yourself. 


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