Muriel Rukeyser on Why People Hate Poetry

As a teacher of poetry, I often hear dislike of poetry expressed. When I hear it, I’m dismayed, and struggle to understand why. At least until I discovered Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry at a conference presentation. Seventy years ago, Muriel Rukeyser wrote these words explaining why people hate poetry that seem to me just as true today.

Anyone dealing with poetry and the love of poetry must deal, then, with the hatred of poetry, and perhaps even more with the indifference which is driven toward the center. It comes through as boredom, as name-calling, as the traditional attitude of the last hundred years which has chalked in the portrait of the poet as he is known to this society, which as Herbert Read says, “does not challenge poetry in principle–it merely treats it with ignorance, indifference and unconscious cruelty.”

 -Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry (1949)

These days, you often hear a truism by poets and poetry faculty that turns Rukeyser slightly askew. It goes something like, “Everybody loves to write poetry, but nobody loves to read it.” Just as dismaying, but I think Rukeyser’s statement explains it just as well.

Until we teach poetry in a way which raises the bar in understanding, enjoyment, and sophistication; until we properly offer this art in a way that is cross-cultural, multi-faceted, and inclusive, we won’t be able to get poetry the respect it deserves. I believe what poets and poetry teachers would want would be for people to find in poetry a way to explore what it means to be alive, to find comfort in difficult circumstances, to grow as an individual, and even to find a way to give praise for and to existence.

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