Poets, or most of them, take their work seriously. You can read interviews in Poets & Writers, American Poets, and The Poetry Society in the U.K., and you know that poetry is serious business, and serious work. It is serious business even for the poets who use humor in their poems and in reading them, like Billy Collins.
So it is a bit disconcerting to start reading Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide by Mark Yakich and find this in the introduction: “The first poem I remember hating was Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, on which I had to write a report in 10th grade.” We soon discover that Yakich hated Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach almost as much. And that he took only one English course in college. And that he had read only three novels by the time he was 25.
I perhaps should have mentioned that Yakich is a professor of English at Loyola University in New Orleans. He teaches creative writing. He teaches poetry. He co-edits the literary journal New Orleans Review.
He’s learned a few things since 10th grade, and loves poetry. His wry irreverence underscores how much he loves poetry: “The very best way to read a poem is perhaps to be young, intelligent, and slightly drunk.”
As I read, and often laughed, my way through Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide, I found myself thinking about Mark Twain, who often exhibited a similar kind of loving irreverence (and sometimes not-so-loving).
The book is about two things: reading poetry and writing poetry. Within those two major sections, individual entries are relatively short, with titles like “Accessibility, ” “Emotion, ” “Metaphor, ” “Form, ” “Self-Expression, ” “Imitation, ” and “The Workshop.” Gradually we understand that this is a how-to book, but it is a different kind of how-to book, urging the reader to consider poetry as a serious subject but not to take one’s self—the poet—too seriously.
Yakich takes on a few of the widely held beliefs, or religious tenets, of contemporary poets. “The idea that a poem can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways is patently false, ” he says. And “a poetic style is something to cling to until it’s outgrown. Some styles, like bad seeds, never grow.” And this: “Reading a poem aloud in a classroom is sometimes uncomfortable. The teacher should make it more so.”
Yakich received a B.A. degree from Illinois Wesleyan University, an M.S. degree from Indiana University, a Masters of Fine Arts degree from the University of Memphis, and a Ph.D. degree from Florida State University. He has published four poetry collections: Unrelated Individuals Forming a Group Waiting to Cross (2004); The Making of Collateral Beauty (2006); The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in the Ukraine (2008); and A Meaning for Wife (2011). He is also a co-editor of Airplane Reading, an online journal of storytelling focused on the experience of flight.
Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide is filled with helpful advice, anecdotes, examples—and humor. Yakich takes his subject seriously (he does, after all, make a living writing and teaching it), but he also sees the fun in it. Poetry is part of life, in all its glorious wonder, awe, joy, tragedy, and ridiculousness, and Yakich would say that’s how we should read it and write it.
Reading a Poem: 20 Strategies – Mark Yakich writing in The Atlantic.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish