That Poetry Beat

Poetry isn’t for everyone. I love poetry for how it makes me feel, the same way some people feel about opera or ballet. But it wasn’t always that way.

Howl by Allen GinsbergI came to the poetry scene late in my academic career. Like so many kids my age, I thought poetry was either something written a long time ago (before they had books) or something in a greeting card.

I was taking an undergraduate literature course in college when the professor gave a lecture on poetry. She was discussing iambic pentameter and emphasizing — over-emphasizing, really — the beats in each line. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum.

Then, pow! Like a code-breaker cracking an enemy cypher, I had this wonderful understanding. I not only heard the meter to poetry, I felt it, deep inside me. It made sense. It had order. Poetry had previously been a closed door to me, but I had been given a key to unlock it.

But the mystery was far from over. I still didn’t like the poetry we were reading. With the exception of Edgar Allan Poe, most poets were writing about fields of flowers or wars long past. I didn’t get Keats, Browning, Tennyson, or most of the others. I felt my interest in poetry slipping away when I was asked to write a paper about a contemporary poet.

A stroll through the university library gave me access to all sorts of poetry. But I wanted something that spoke to me, to my generation. By luck or providence, I found a small book of poetry by Allen Ginsberg titled Howl and Other Poems. It began:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night …

For the first time in my life, I was reading poetry I could relate to. Though it was written to a generation before me, I found a kindred spirit in the Beat poets: Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, and others.

After the Beats, I read Charles Bukowski, Langston Hughes, and Dylan Thomas. I found new poets, too. I watched poetry slams and discovered voices like Sonia Sanchez and Saul Williams, the humor of Beau Sia, and the conviction of Taylor Mali.

I was writing poetry, too. And I was making friends with some poets in the area. I loved their work as much as the pros I was reading. Now many of those friends are becoming important voices in the poetry community.

Somewhere around this time, I can’t remember where or when, I started reading Billy Collins. I fell in love with his easy-to-understand language and his simple (almost koan-like) contemplations. He is still my favorite poet, and I’m happy to say that I have his autograph in a collection of his work.

Although I don’t write much poetry these days, I recently posted a poem about the Transit of Venus on my blog. In April, I started writing haiku with a science fiction theme on Twitter. Every weekday (and sometimes on the weekend), I add a new haiku. I have been doing this for a couple of months now and hope to keep going for a year. You can follow my progress at @kansasbard.

I still have hopes of publishing a collection of my work some day. It’s one of the three writing goals on my bucket list.

As I said at the start, I like poetry because of how it makes me feel. No one can make you like it. But if you allow yourself to experience poetry and it touches you, it can change you forever.

Kevin Wohler is a copywriter and novelist living in Lawrence, Kansas. During the day, he works at a digital marketing agency in the Kansas City area. When time remains, he likes to tell stories of the weird and bizarre. And sometimes, he writes them down for others to read.

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