Placing Poetry Within Reach

Mateo Avila Chinchilla photo



JD DeHart



As I recently gave a conference presentation on my use of poetry in a research project, I checked the room for nodding heads when I declared, “Poetry does not have to be confusing.” Indeed, a small number of attendees were in agreement with me.


My own history with poetry reaches back to my junior high school years, when I entered a writing contest and found a place – with the contest, but also with composition. From there, I began writing stories and poems and submitted them almost without ceasing until I reached adulthood. Then I took a brief retirement from poetry before returning full steam.


Poetry sometimes has the reputation for being a confusing and meaning-laden form. My own composition students would express this impression to me in class. When I would ask how many of my students like poems, only a few hands would go up. On the other hand, if I mentioned music and lyrics, only a few hands were still down.


While it is true that a journey through literature can take place with beautiful language, rich with metaphors and allusions, and while it is true that our first encounters with poetry are often in versions of English that we no longer use, circa 1500 or so, I also believe that poetry can be an opportunity to bring everyday language into a kind of pattern that can be appreciated. Sometimes poetry can even sound like broken prose. I am not sure about the dividing line between poetry and prose, and I haven’t met anyone with a solid answer on this yet, either.


In fact, one of my favorite prose writers, Ray Bradbury, was often very poetic in his writing. Ironically, the books that he organized and labeled as poetry have never appealed to me as much as his use of sensory language and figurative elements in novels like Fahrenheit-451.


Below is the text for one of the first poems I published on re-entering the writing life, in 2012 in a journal called Steel Toe Review. I have had this piece reprinted a few times. My purpose in sharing this is to illustrate what I mean about the differences between prose and poetry, all using fairly simple language.



Green Sandal Monologue


Laundry has to be done, but I am not doing it today. I am on break today. All day long.


The world is not perfect, you will not find it this way and you will not be responsible to leave it this way. Some teenagers are just going to have sex; they will also steal and commit other crimes. Adults are just as bad, maybe worse, than teenagers because they are supposed to know better.


Strawberry wine is good when executed correctly; when the air gets to it, it tastes like tires. Drunkenness is not essential to a good drink. If the drink isn’t good, then you might want to shoot it down fast. But, then, why did drink it in the first place? The best winery in town is actually outside of town; you can settle for the closer one, but the air gets to the wine too easily there. You will be embarrassed if you buy it as a gift for someone. I’ve got three spoiled bottles of it that I keep as a reminder. What else would I do with them? They aren’t fit to drink.


I do not like lawn chairs but I do like a nice chair to sit in the shade, beneath an umbrella. I burn too easily. My sandals are clumped up with grass. It will need to be mowed again, sometime after I finally do laundry. The dogs bring in evidence of the yard each time they step back into the house. Summer goes quickly, but so does everything else; in autumn, the feeling of death is in the air. It is the process of leaving something behind; winter comes and we sit quietly in our houses, staying warm; spring opens up the opportunity but be careful because cold still comes as part of the package – sometimes, rarely, and without warning.



I did not choose an especially complex title here. Green. Sandal. Monologue. Monologue is perhaps the most complex of these words, but is readily accessible for the average high school or middle school student. I even use a few words that I would mark in student papers. My goodness, I use the word “bad” when a thousand other English words could do. Terrible, transmogrified, rotten, just to name a few.


The ideas here are perhaps a little more complex, working just below the surface of the words I am using. I don’t think it’s incredibly profound to mention that the poem is about the balance of promise and the harder decisions and experiences in life. I do not use much symbolism, beyond the basic spring and winter motif.


Now, others may say this poem does not work. It’s in paragraphs. They may point to sonnet formats, but I don’t think poetry has to be chained to rhyme and meter either. Still others may prefer to complex and mystical words of a writer like James Tate. I myself love his work and was deeply saddened when he passed away a few years ago.


What I am suggesting in this little piece is that one need not to be addicted to the thesaurus to write a beautiful poem. Beautiful poems are built out of everyday experiences, and the lines are not always so clear.


I have used poems to express emotion, search my mind, recover from grief, and even explore research findings. We are as chained as we allow ourselves to be when it comes to tackling verse – and this includes the unspoken expectation that poems need to be heavy-handed, highly symbolic, and unreachable.


Poems can just as easily be picked off a shelf and handed to a child to enjoy for a moment or two.






JD DeHart

JD DeHart is a writer and teacher. His chapbook,The Truth About Snails, is available from RedDashboard.

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