Operation: Poetry Dare

Near the end of the movie ET, young Elliott watches in horror as scientists enclosed in a sterile bubble and protected by Tyvek suits prepare to slice and dice into his beloved alien friend. Unable to recognize the magic of the extra-terrestrial or receive him as a gift, the researchers default to the only approach they understand. They plan to dissect and analyze him to see what made him tick.

If poetry was an alien life form—and I’m not stipulating it’s not—I might be tempted to approach it clad only in Tyvek while wielding sharp instruments.

For months I’ve quietly eavesdropped on a group of poets who gather in this corner of the internet at Tweetspeak Poetry. Every once in a while I drop by to look at what they are reading and listen to what they are saying about it. Rarely do I speak up or make my presence known. If someone notices me in the room I just stand there, smiling and nodding—a quizzical look on my face—because I have no idea what these people, these poets are talking about. Frankly, poetry scares me more than a little.

I remember when my children studied poems in high school, dissecting and analyzing the poor things stanza-by-stanza and line-by-line. They learned about meter and rhyme, and filled worksheets with stress and breve markings to delineate each iambic, trochaic, and anapestic foot. Whenever I’ve thought about dipping a big toe into the poetry pond, I’ve assumed I would need to consult those old workbooks just to help me keep my head above water.

I get bogged down by things like why poets break their lines where they do. I try to count words and syllables, attempt to feel the rhythm and find the music. I flail about as I read, seeing patterns shift and vary wildly, refusing to settle into any kind of order I can make sense of. I keep thinking maybe if the words of a poem were fitted into a spreadsheet I might be able to detect some kind of underlying structure. It might make more sense to me. I have no clue about what makes one poetic form work better than another. And when I listen to poets discussing their craft I feel as though I am hearing another language.

Then along came The Poetry Dare.

A Tweetspeak editor took note of me standing uncomfortably at the edge of the poetry circle, hands dug deep into the pockets of my Tyvek suit, and devised a little experiment, asking me to be the subject.

The hypothesis: Repeated daily exposure to poetic works may reduce symptoms of anxiety among poetry-averse readers. Under the expert guidance and supervision of poet Megan Willome, I will consume a poem a day. Megan will monitor my reactions, fully aware I may at any time break out into hives or require administration of oxygen.

I will document my results and provide occasional updates as we seek to answer the question, “Will one scientific mathematical poetry-non-lover survive the dare to read a poem a day?”

Who knows? Perhaps I may one day even make friends with this alien life form.

Photo by DesignShard, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Nancy Franson. 


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  1. says

    Nancy, this is delightful and so are you. I am sitting as still as a July day in South Carolina waiting and watching this experiment unfold. This is fun stuff. Thanks for agreeing to be the object of the experiment. You are brave. Anything for science, or art, or the cause. You go valiant you.

    • says

      Thank you, my friend. You can be an honorary member of my resuscitation team should I get in over my head. I know you write lovely poetry; I just don’t understand how or why. Yet.

      • says

        Honored to be on the resuscitation team which will not in fact ever be needed :) But honored and standing at the ready nonetheless. This….
        “Poetry is ordinary language raised to the Nth power. Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotion, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words.” Paul Engle

        I thought this would appeal to the mathematician in you :)

  2. says

    It’s very simple Nancy….don’t follow the rules. Just read Dr. Seuss everyday. Make up words and throw grammar out the window. Write from your soul, even if your soul wants to use the word “potato” in a way your brain finds offensive.
    LOVE YOU! xoxoxox

  3. L. L. Barkat says

    I love JoAnn’s advice. Perhaps we should all write a potato poem today (where is Maureen when we need her? 😉

    Nancy, you have the one thing quite necessary for a life in poetry… and that is a sense of humor. Some of the best poets are know are amazingly funny people. (Just ask Tania Runyan :) )

  4. says

    Nancy, sit with a bunch of Billy Collins poems first, because I think you’ll find a kindred spirit–someone funny having fun with the whole thing.

    And may I say how jealous I am that you have a poetry mentor in Megan?

    Also, check in with Tania Runyan’s “How to Read a Poem” series on Fridays this summer. She’s a great teacher (fun and funny, too). She shows that reading and appreciating poetry is not so much about scansion. It’s about…well, check out her first one: http://www.tweetspeakpoetry.com/2013/06/28/how-to-read-a-poem/

    • says

      You had to know I was going to jump at any chance to hang out with Megan. She and Lyla both recommended Tania’s article and I’ve got it printed out and sitting right next to me as I type.

      I guess it’s evident I’m in desperate need of remedial assistance if I’m going to survive this dare!

  5. says

    I just want to say this has been fun for me, too. It makes me read the Every Day Poems more carefully, thinking about what I like or don’t like. And it’s always fun to talk poetry with a friend. Long live the aliens!

  6. says

    Nancy, I’m with you, girl. Poetry baffles me. It intimidates me. Writing it. Reading it. Everything. And I was an English major! {maybe that’s the problem?}

    Sometimes I like to listen to Garrison Keillor read the poem of the day on Writers’ Almanac (NPR). Something about hearing it read aloud helps.

    • says

      Michelle, be sure to check on Friday here at Tweetspeak. Tania Runyan is leading a summer series on How to Read a Poem. I think you’ll appreciate her series, and, perhaps, appreciate poetry a little more, as well.

    • says

      Michelle, I think you and I are wired the same way. Neither one of us can make heads or tails out of Magic Eye pictures either.

      I think part of the reason I’ve been so poetry-avoidant is because I feel like this is something I should know; I should understand. I should be able to stare at it long enough that the picture will emerge.

      So part of this project is just giving myself permission, and others as well, to say out loud, “I don’t get it. Is there any hope of me learning any of this now?” Old dog, new tricks.

      That, and getting to have fun with all the folks over here.

  7. says

    I like the way poetry is described here (although there are lots of ways to describe it). Perhaps you’ll find it a little enlightening…hope so. Well done, you in the effort.

    “During most of our lives, we simply ignore the gaps in sense, but poetry can use language in a way that brings them to our attention. And once they’ve come to our attention, we start to notice that new things, new kinds of sense, accrete in them. These points of breakdown, these gaps, are not found just by art – they’re also found by violence and war, by love, wonder, and fear – by any experience that takes us to the unique. But I think the arts are particularly able to mold new accretions in constructive ways.” ~ Cole Swensen

  8. says

    the words
    a cage of guinea pigs
    lagging behind
    the rats and mice
    of modern lines
    though if bread smooth
    can still be loved at times

  9. says

    I am grinning ear to ear! I love everything about this post Nancy! I love everything about this dare! I love your courage and sense of adventure and I LOVE that you found Tweetspeak to lurk around for a while… and that you were spotted??? Ahhh… wonderful!

    And what’s that? A potato dare? Well, who can resist a potato dare?

    One poetato
    Two poetato
    Three poetato

    Slice em up
    Dice em up
    Mash em on the floor!

    Salt each letter
    All the better
    Who could ask for more?

    One poetato
    Two poetato
    Three poetato

  10. says

    All of this scares me too Nancy. I used to write lots of poetry, but I think my sort of is rather passe. I don’t have a clue how to write a poem any more. So I stand quietly outside the circle with you – in deep admiration of those who do it so well.

    • says

      Linda I’ve never even attempted to write poetry, so you’ve already been much braver than I am. I join you in admiring those who do this thing so beautifully.

  11. says

    Poetry baffles me, for the most part. I understand a little Emily Dickinson but Robert Frost is just confusing. I am fan of short blunt writing–say it once, say it clearly, and be done with it.

    I write Bible studies. A woman at church got “writer” and “poet” confused, thought I was a poet, and demanded that her daughter introduce her to me.

    She looked at me with disappointment. “I heard you were a poet, and I wanted to see what you looked like.”


  12. says

    I’m just standing in the corner of the room laughing my arse off (can I say “arse” here? it sounds poetic, doesn’t it?)at this conversation. What a fun way to end the day.

    • says

      Laura, “arse” does sound poetic and British or West Virginia-esque. Maybe Southerese. Oh shoot now I have to google its past :) Maybe we should all write a poem using the word “arse”. And Nancy, read Carl Sandburg and Ogden Nash and Billy Collins for sure if you want some humor. Billy Collins reads his own work beautifully on lots of poetry sights. Get out the depends :) friend love ya. Hey by the time we are roommates you may be a poetry convert.

  13. Marcy Terwilliger says

    I’m really having fun reading this while I go back & forth to the window where we are trying to trap foxes. I thought it was funny this week when an old friend read a poem I wrote. She said, “I think I agree.” To which I replied, it’s just thoughts, words from the soul, a poem. You don’t have to agree or disagree, just enjoy what is written. With the new lingo in poems these days I believe everyone thinks and believes it must rhyme.

  14. says

    Nancy, I’m following along here and sending you courage vibes for your dare. Can you feel them? I’m a drugstore poet at best so I’m interested in this little experiment.

    Be brave, and I hope Megan will feed you some Ted Kooser.

  15. says

    Late to the table, as always, but this is such a grand idea. I think I fall somewhere in between Nancy and the editors here. I love poetry -have volumes of it all over my house, though I surely don’t know many poets and learn a lot about new ones in this space. But it terrifies me. I used to dabble in it, but gave it up years and years ago, probably when sermon writing became a part of my life. I refused to be a ‘3 points and a poem’ kind of preacher, so I never went close to a poem of my own and usually only referenced song lyrics or written prayers (some of which are poem, in my estimation) from history. I subscribe to the daily poem and the Saturday newsletter. Is there anyway to subscribe to daily posts?? I don’t get those so I missed this entirely. Ah, I see a line below. I’ll try clicking it. :>)

    • says

      Diana, yes. Our weekly newsletter is our primary vehicle for daily content, unless you use a reader of sorts and want to load it in there. But the weekly will capture nearly all the week’s posts.

      Or, be sure to follow us at @tspoetry and on our Facebook page.

      Hoping Nancy will be with us every couple of weeks during the Dare, so get set for some fun. :)

  16. says


    I could hear your for-real voice while reading this post.

    (I can’t all the comments that were posted while I was at work. The world is supposed to stop while I’m at work.)


  17. Marcy Terwilliger says

    79 comments, I read each one so now it’s time 2 have some fun.
    Delighted 2 have Nancy, thanks, it appeals 2 me, don’t follow the rules but potatoes sliced & diced, I’ll write a potato poem 2. I wrote a potato poem, it’s not about potatoes. I said u r a poet. Used 2 b, once a King r Queen then potato salad on the 4th. Nancy sit with Billy, she needs remedial assistance. Scansion, Nancy knows the word, fake accent, video embed, so huge. SQUEEE! Potato named Nancy, wait chimp poem, locate chimp poem, misty eyed Nancy after L.L. finds it. Lyla disagrees. Donna LOL. Nancy, tears 2 my eyes. Hilarious, fun 4 me, long live the aliens, indeed. Love what u 2 r doing. Nancy intimidates me. Check Fridays Tweetspeak. We r wired, lodged n mind. Well done. Love that quote, Art, a cage of guinea pigs, oops, potatoes, grinning, muck around, a lurker, laughing, laughing. Favorite poem, “U Made My Day.” Scared, braver, baffled, so funny, cracked up, what do u say? Oh my, Oh well, I confess, I say arse, “Arse,” chimp crazy, arse, new lingo, enjoy, vibes, feeling vibes. Kooser late 2 the table, nowhere, yes your 4 real, can’t believe all the comments, what’s wrong with me?

  18. says

    I’m pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction through Seattle Pacific University and have found that practicing Lectio Divina while reading a poem (I’m going through Gary Schmidt’s Acceptable Words, which is a collection of poems) is a lovely way to loosen me up as well as be aware of the words that shimmer. I try to do this once a day as well.

  19. Eileen Popp Syracuse NY says

    ooh-this has been so fun maybe I will get over my fear of writing poetry-thanks, all=a Syracuse nurse poet-wanna-be


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