The Fear of Poetry

A year ago I was teaching high school seniors about poetry. I had recently graduated from college and let me tell you I was scared to death of poetry. I had never written it (except of course maybe in high school as a lame sauce assignment).I didn’t understand it despite how hard I tried. The fear had taken over and I had basically ignored the existance of poetry. That’s right, the English major ignored poetry.

Well, when it came time to teach my seniors I realized it was time to face my fear. I wasn’t about to destroyed by some sonnet. So I worked hard and my students worked hard and you know what? Together as a team I think we conquered poetry. My students too were afraid, as I had once been at their age but we busted ass together and I would say a good sixty-five percent of them got over their fear. They were writing beautiful essays about meaning and symbolism and form and it was great! I thought…

Now here I am a grad student studying creative writing and I thought my poetry fear was over. Oh no, instead it has come back and bitten me square in the behind. I’m currently taking a poetry workshop and today I have to submit my first poem. Let me tell how much I’m freaking out…a lot, tons, Oh MY GOD!!

I had a weird incident about a month ago where I had had the best run of my life and decided I would write a poem about it. What? I know for someone who is definitely a prose person I was surprised, but I wrote a poem. Is it any good? Heck if I know, but nevertheless there it is saved on my computer and I’ve done some revision and even wrote another poem the other day but I have this horrible fear (and I think this is the real fear) that I’m going to turn poems into my workshop and they will be so badly received. Or worse they will suck.

I’ve been studying literature and writing for a while now and you know I still can’t decided what makes a poem good. I taught the important people in poetry (Wordsworth, Dickinson, Keats, Browning, Plath etc…) but you know what? I couldn’t tell why those poems were good.

So today I go into my workshop with my copies for everyone and send my work out. I guess that’s what this whole grad school thing is about as well, facing that fear of “you suck and aren’t talented, maybe you should go work the projector at the movie theater.” So I guess come time for class my mantra will be, “here goes nothin’!”



  1. Very best of luck to you; I did a degree in English and Latin back in the 80s in an English university and my thoughts are simply that good poetry is good because it touches you in some way.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I feel the same way. Sometimes I read a poem and think, “that stinks” but it’s by Emily Dickinson. Then I read a random poem about cheese and think, “I too enjoy cheese.”

  2. Horace once said you mustn’t argue about taste: de gustibus non disputandum. I think he’s right. I don’t like Emily Dickinson but I do rather like Plath.
    I belong to cafe crem, one of the wordpress blogs devoted to art, music and writing and it’s been rather good fun to share and explore these things, when I live in a depressed, bluecollar English coastal town with no easy access to this sort of fellowship.
    Oh and I love cheese too!

  3. If you hear the poem’s song and you get it, are moved by it, the poem is good. While there’s a mathematical/mechanical aspect that can be taught in poetry, it’s in what the poet conveys.

    With the important poets, somehow they managed to stay on the canon of literature. Blake or Donne are sublimely powerful in any century. Dylan Thomas too, and the very aware rants of Allen Ginsberg. I have to admit some of the modern professor-poets are the ones where I’m harder pressed to say if they’re good.

    With those poets who have recorded their work, there’s an opportunity to hear if the poem’s good. One hears the language and how they use it, but also, what do those words mean to the poet.

    Keep going with your poems. Keep in mind the workshop is only for criticism and feedback. They are not the endpoint for the poem, so don’t write for the workshop.

    1. I’m glad you said, “don’t write for the workshop” because I think I totally did that last semester. When I realized I was doing it, I thought to myself, “why I am going to do an MFA if I’m not going to write for myself.” So I stopped and write whatever the heck I want!

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. I’m reading a book that you may benefit from. It’s by Terry Eagleton, unassumingly titled, How to Read a Poem. While that may sound a little basic, the premise of the book is that even most university professors have stopped engaging in literary criticism. He thinks we tend to look at it too much in terms theory, as opposed to, as an individual work of art. This is beneficial to me because it helps reveal some of the potentials in poetry that I haven’t discovered before. The book is a lot more readable than books such as this often are, and I feel that it would be equally as useful to writers of poetry as it would be to readers.

    1. I have used this book before. Last year, preparing IB seniors for their exams I had to teach poetry at an advanced level and I used excerpts from it. We all learned something about poetry. I should pick it up again and go through.

      My professor just lent me The Poet’s Companion, it is also really useful for writers.

      Thanks for the comment and advice.

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