Now in its 15th year, National Poetry Month celebrates poetry and its place in our culture. IU Press author and former Indiana Poet Laureate Norbert Krapf is a great advocate of poetry. I recently spoke with Norbert about his work and the importance of poetry in our lives. This is the first installment of a five-part interview series with Norbert. In this piece, he discusses why it's important to study poetry.
Poetry helps us to choose our words carefully, learn to compress what we say and write, lifts us up out of our doldrums, out of what young people like to describe as their “boredom,” makes us see the small things in our daily life with more clarity, appreciate what we overlook, puts us in touch with the feelings and situations of other human beings, and inspires us to reach out to others. How could we not want to study something that so improves the quality of our lives?
I know, I know, many people fear poetry, are convinced they don’t “get it,” but there are poems out there that will speak to and for each and every one of us, if we’ll only find them and give them a chance to work their magic. Sometimes uptight teachers make the reading of poetry more a drudgery than a pleasure, and that doesn’t help. I believe people teach poetry best when they relieve themselves of the responsibility of being an “authority” on it and admit that they do not understand everything about every poem but are willing to learn. What a burden to carry. When you get to the point that you want to read poetry on your own, can’t stand not reading it, then you are well on your way to being reborn in the word.
Poetry, in the end, is music, goes back to the same origin as song does, and is important for all of us, to help us live our lives. Poetry is spiritual medicine. I’ve been reading lately about Shamanism. Poetry helps us heal and grow spiritually. I started to read poetry every night in bed in college and have never stopped doing this. I do read plenty of prose also, but I learned contemporary poetry not by taking a class in it, but by reading it every night before going to sleep. (I never once have taken a class in “creative writing,” only twice, in the 1970s, taught such a class.) Poems that you read in bed at night before you drift off to sleep enter into your subconscious and become part of you. And if you read poems out loud and savor their sounds as if you taste them, as little children do, they go way down inside you, and their lines will pop up out of your memory and stay with you and speak to you and help you in an amazing way.
Norbert Krapf was Professor of English at Long Island University from 1970 to 2004. He is is author of Invisible Presence, Bloodroot, and the fortchoming poetry collection Songs in Sepia and Black and White. To learn more about Norbert's work, visit his website.