Please Be My Poetry Professor

I totally bailed on a free, online poetry class I signed up for. I just … I’m busy. We all are, so I’ll spare you the details. Breathless accounts of other people’s busy days are almost never interesting, except to the person giving them.

It also just wasn’t the right class for me, in that it was modern and contemporary poetry, with most of its emphasis, by far, on “modern.” Generally, what you think of as “modern” is really “contemporary.” I have only recently learned this, and used to be mystified by exhibits of modern art in which most of the works were from the ‘50s.

Anyway, what I really need is some type of impetus to read contemporary poetry. I love William Carlos Williams, but I feel like I’ve been gazing at that red wheelbarrow long enough. Where I need a lot more depth is with great poets who are still among us or who are only recently deceased.

But here’s the problem … I’m scared to read those living greats. Why? Because I’m not as good as they are, I’ll never get those genius grants or be Norton anthologized or be poet laureate, I don’t even have an MFA, and also, HOLY %^*#, THAT ONE IS YOUNGER THAN ME. (That last one comes up more and more lately – I am now markedly older than most Olympic athletes, too.)

I’ve shaken off my previous heebie jeebies about reading any living poets at all. Now that I have a good number of publishing credits (is there ever really a good number?), I can be genuinely happy when a writing friend gets whatever brass ring they were going for, and I can genuinely enjoy their work, rather than fretting over whether it’s better than mine. But those are the poets whom I would consider to be in my circle and achieving at roughly the same level as I am.

When it comes to those acknowledged living greats, those sine qua nons and ne plus ultras who still walk among us – and thus, rob me of the one slight advantage I have over many other great poets – I still have a terrible, and very petty, block.

So … Leave me a comment. If I can ever get over myself, what great living poet should I read, and why? And can you relate to anything I said here? (I’m not the only one … right?)


6 thoughts on “Please Be My Poetry Professor

  1. As a teacher, I see this mindset all. the. time.

    I share this bit of Seth Godin wisdom with my students. (He probably wasn’t thinking of writing students — or poets — when he wrote it, but I do.)

    “One of the dumbest forms of criticism is to shout down an expert in one field who speaks up about something else. The actor with a political point of view, or the physicist who talks about philosophy. The theory is that people should stick to what they know and quietly sit by in all other situations.

    Of course, at one point, we all knew nothing. The only way you ever know anything, in fact, is to speak up about it. Outline your argument, support it, listen, revise.

    The byproduct of speaking up about what you don’t know is that you soon know more. And maybe, just maybe, the experts learn something from you and your process.

    No one knows more about the way you think than you do. Applying that approach, combining your experience, taking a risk–this is what we need from you.”

    Did you let that last bit into your heart? Because, really, “No one knows more about the way you think than you do. Applying that approach, combining your experience, taking a risk–this is what we need from you.”

    As for a contemporary poet, I have two suggestions: Linda Bierds and Lucia Perillo. Perillo is probably best known for The Body Mutinies, but I think this one ( shares something with your work.

    (Don’t spook yourself.)

    • Thank you! That’s very wise. I do think it’s dumb when people gripe about actors expressing opinions. Like everyone is supposed to just be in a box and only do their assigned thing, when many of us are combining so many different things in our lives and trying to put it all together so the world makes sense.

      I think I need a new risk. Poet’s Market arrived a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve barely cracked it. I’ve been submitting stuff for a couple of years now and have a good dozen or so “hits,” but it’s hard to get up the energy to do that same thing all over again. It’s still a thrill to get a publication in the mail. but then it’s like, “OK, is that it?” I think I need to write a lot, submit a little, and think chapbook, chapbook, chapbook.

      I will check out both poets you recommend. I’m especially excited about the one you think might have some sensibilities in common with me. How thoughtful of you to make such a personalized recommendation! Thank you so much.

  2. This made me laugh. I am taking an online ModPo class now (on Coursera–same one maybe?). The older I get the more picky I get about where I want to spend my time. If you’re tired of the red wheelbarrow, by all means move on. I’m trying to decide now how much time I want to commit–do I really need a “certificate”? No. I might just do the readings and watch the videos. Not sure I need to participate much in the forums or write too many essays…we’ll see. I am there to learn, not to get a grade.

    With respect to the mental block, I would offer the advice of poet and businessman Jim Autry: Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. (Not suggesting you write poorly! But it doesn’t really matter how well you write–you should read and write regardless.)

    Poet to read: I always go back to Sharon Olds’ The Wellspring. Also, just ran across this interesting site:

    • Yes, that’s what it was! I didn’t want to call it by name because I’m sure it’s not a bad course — just a mismatch for me at the moment. Right after I signed up for it, I got a huge freelance assignment and will soon get another one. I gave the class a quick try anyway, but … I watched the video where the TAs nervously sip beverages while defining what every single word in an Emily Dickinson poem means — or doesn’t mean, or on the other hand, possibly might mean, unless, of course, it doesn’t — and I wanted to stab myself in the eyeballs.

      Is the rest of the course like this? Should I consider dipping back into it now and then? Maybe sampling around and avoiding anything that gives me that stabby eyeball feeling?

      Thanks for the Sharon Olds recommendation! I like her, and it’s been a long time since I read anything by her. I have a Sharon Olds story, courtesy of a classmate in a creative writing class in college: There used to be a James Wright poetry festival in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio. My classmate went, and Sharon Olds was grand marshal of the parade … and was waving from a convertible. And seemed to be having a great time. I love that the town had a regular parade that happened to focus on poetry, and that Sharon Olds participated so cheerfully.

      Thanks again!

      • I have only gotten through week 1 – Dickinson and Whitman. All the videos I’ve watched have been of the same approach. For me, it is a better fit since I have not really taken many poetry classes that did such “close” readings. I had a couple of aha moments on the Dickinson, and realized some of my own poetry has a few layers that I suspect most people miss. It was kind of a relief (in a weird way) to know that sometimes you have to work at understanding. That being said, I typically prefer poetry that is more accessible. I remember a teacher telling me once, use the language to reveal, not to obscure. If I were you, I’d probably check out the videos on poets that you find appealing, but stop if you get the urge to pick up knitting needles and poke them in your eyes. 🙂

  3. OK, I read some of this week’s stuff, and I think my problem is really isolated to the videos. Maybe I’ll just watch the ones for those poems where there’s something I feel I’m not grasping? The syllabus is useful. Part of my problem, too, is that there seems to be so much for each week, and it feels like all or nothing to me — and I can’t give it “all” at the moment. I bet if I were to really surrender to it, I’d end up learning quite a lot.

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