the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Poetry Scares Me

Denise Levertov – poet

My blogging pal, Lynn, from Sprigs, and Liz Elayne, of be present, be here,  have started something called Poetry Thursday.   Poetry Thursday “is an online project that encourages bloggers to read and enjoy poetry, as well as sharing it with others.”

I’ve never been a big fan of poetry.  It’s embarrassing to say, considering I was an English major in college and I like to read.  I think one of the reasons is that I feel most comfortable with traditional A-B-C storytelling.   Poetry is often about mood or language itself and it doesn’t always have the forward thrust of a narrative.  When Lynn asked if I was interested in getting involved, I sent her this email:

I’ll think about it.  To be quite honest, I do have an interest in poetry.   Maybe you can help me understand why this is, but I avoid poetry, because reading poetry frequently makes me feel nervous — almost anxious.  Is that weird to admit?  Maybe because I’m so used to words and sentences having a structure and making a concrete point – providing information in a story that I can focus on –  I’m not really sure what to do with just words and emotion?  Maybe it’s a male thing, like not asking for directions.  I mean, does poetry have tits I can play with?

Her response:

It depends on the poems. Some have tits and ass that don’t mind being played with, but others are terribly prude.

I don’t know how fully I’m going to participate, but I thought I’d take a cue from Sophia, and be brave.  Look fear in the eye.  And actually read some poetry.

I went to the Index of Modern American Poets and spent the next couple of hours just reading different poems. 

I wish I had the literary skills of an arts critic.  I’m terrible in explaining why I like one piece of art better than another.  Why do I love watching “24,” but fall asleep watching “CSI?”  Is there a specific reason I like one book over another?  Why do I relate to one blogger’s writing more than another, especially when I don’t know really know any of you.

Maybe if I keep on reading poetry for a while, I’ll be better prepared to explain why I liked this following poem the best out of the dozens I read.  It’s not particularly a “big” poem, or about anything dramatic.  It’s written by Denise Levertov, who died in 1997.  This is supposedly the last poem she ever wrote.


When I found the door
I found the vine leaves
speaking among themselves in abundant
My presence made them
hush their green breath,
embarrassed, the way
humans stand up, buttoning their jackets,
acting as if they were leaving anyway, as if
the conversation had ended
just before you arrived.
I liked
the glimpse I had, though,
of their obscure
gestures. I liked the sound
of such private voices. Next time
I’ll move like cautious sunlight, open
the door by fractions, eavesdrop

(Denise Levertov. “The Great Unknowing: Last Poems.”

Copyright 1999 by the Denise Levertov Property Trust. 
Publisher:  New Directions.)


  1. susannah

    Neil, i don’t think there’s anything weird about finding poems intimidating! certainly some poems are so succinct and pared down the reader has to work really hard to work out what the poet is banging on about! and yes, i think a lot of poetry is emotional – and provokes an emotional response in the reader (which can often be uncomfortable)

    interestingly, the ones i like best are the ones i’ve just described above – the long rambling ‘narrative’ poems tend to bore me 🙂 I hadn’t read any of levertov’s poems until this very moment, so thank you for finding her and sharing. perhaps some bloke-y poets would ring your bell? like Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney or Andrew Motion? there’s gotta be some tits in there somewhere 🙂

    fantastic blog you’ve got here, btw

  2. lizardek

    Poetry is supposed to scare you. Or at least terrify you and awe you. Or make you think. Or make you feel. Those can be scary too. On the other hand, it can make you laugh, or even roll your eyes. So, it’s not all scary! You picked a beauty! Thank you for sharng that one.

  3. DebR

    I can relate to poetry making a person feel anxious. And the part about not knowing what to do with words and emotions vs. a straightforward narrative…yep, I get that too.

    I’m only just starting to rediscover a love of poetry after years of thinking I didn’t (couldn’t!) “get it.” When Liz Elayne was still hosting PT on her blog, I wouldn’t sign up to participate because “I’m not a poetry person”, so instead I posted 2 months worth of one-time-only entries. (snort!)

    Anyway, sorry to go on so long in your comments. I really ilke the poem you chose. Given the discussion, I’d like to tell you why I like it, but I don’t think I can with only a half-cup of coffee in my brain.

  4. M.A.

    That poem is simultaneously heavy and airy. Poets–whether they become well known or not–have a special gift which enables them to capture what a great deal of us just don’t bother to notice or think about.

  5. brandon

    i would probably like that poem a lot more if it weren’t for the line breaks. i’ve always had trouble wondering why if you’re going to throw rhyme and meter out the door you’ve got to hold on to old forms. i’ve been ruined by rimbaud, i suppose. but poetry, like boobage, is about subjectivity. some like frequent breaks, some like symmetry, some like small, some not so much, some are ashamed, and so stay away, and quite a few more prefer close enough to touch.

  6. AscenderRisesAbove

    wonderful poem – sad that it was her last

  7. Mike F

    I never got Poetry either.
    Then one night on Prairie Home Companion I heard Billy Collins read a couple of his poems. They were great. He read Nostalgia, which I thought was fun. He looks at the world differently than you and I and it is really eye opening to see what he sees.

    Some of his topics are Victoria Secrets catalogs, teaching poetry to students, etc.

    I don’t have an ear for much poetry but I love Billy Collins.

    Oldest son has more a poet mentality. He overheard me raving about Billy Collins and started writing some himself. His make me feel proud.

  8. Lynn

    Mike F, I love Billy Collins, too. And Neil, you know I was kidding about poems having T&A, right? 😉

  9. The Retropolitan

    Actually if poems had more T & A, I’d probably be a poet.

  10. Dustin

    Poetry falls into my “scary but beautiful” category. Scary because I rarely am able to understand it initially (if ever) and so often it exists outside the categories and formulas that let me feel in control of what-it-is. Beautiful for the same reason.

  11. Alice

    i found you a boobie poem 🙂

  12. ms. sizzle

    i l.o.v.e. poetry. reading it aloud is a bit daunting but i can easily get lost in the stanzas of a good poem. . . like the one you shared here. levertov is masterful in creating movement and life in her poetry.

    thanks for sharing that.

  13. vicci

    Right on !!!! This is a beautiful poem!

  14. Elisabeth

    I have dissected a good number of poems by great French poets in my academic career and, yet, poetry is not my favorite genre by any means. Like you, I find it a bit intimidating – but I do love Baudelaire and, especially Apollinaire.

    It is quite an experience for me to have a daughter majoring in English writing with a concentration in poetry at the University of Pittsburgh – who has definitely demonstrated that she is a promising poet – and writes stuff that just floors me. I often think that her sensibilities are quite different from mine – rare, precious, and delicate – whereas I just plow on with my mundane prose. But, then again, she is the kind of kid who walks around with a little notebook all the time, something that I have never done.

    Re. poems about breasts – a French Renaissance tradition was the art of the blason (not sure what the equivalent in English.) Blasons were poems focusing on one particular element of the female anatomy. One of the most famous one in French Renaissance poetry is “Le Blason du beau tétin” (“Poem to a Beautiful Breast” [or something like that]) by Clément Marot. A tradition was to write “Contre-blasons” or “counter-blasons,” so Marot wrote the “Blason du laid tétin” (“Poem to an Ugly Breast.”)

    Finally, I enjoy going to poetry readings, but I know people who really hate those. Neil, what’s your feeling on poetry readings?

  15. Heather

    Whitman hits me in all the right spots. I’m not sure about the tits, but he was definitely an ass man. Ahem. Seriously, his love of being alive and for those who were alive around him is joyously apparent in his writing. He has more than one poem entitled “To You.” Try the one that begins with the line “Whoever you are, I fear you are walking the walks of dreams…”

    Expanding your literary horizons. Good for you.

  16. jennifer

    Read some Donald Hall – alot of T&A for you to enjoy perhaps…

  17. cruisin-mom

    Neil, good for you, branching out. I find poetry scary…but my favorite t.v. show is American Idol, so I guess that explains it.

  18. Bre

    Poetry is, in essence, what led to my degree in English (It certainly wasn’t the grammatical stuff!). There’s something about the precision, the emotion, and the detail involved in creating a truly beautiful poem that really excites me. My favorites are Yeats, Traherne, and Elliot, but there are several spoken word poets (Taylor Mali) and more modern poets (Cummings)who I really adore as well.

    I really love her response to your email, and it’s already scribbled down in my quote journal. Lovely.

  19. Tanya

    I don’t like poems. They take too long to get to the point.

  20. better safe than sorry

    actually, i kind of think of your lyrics for sophia as poetry, more so than a story, aren’t they? i’m not really into poetry, but i do enjoy listening to good lyrics.

  21. stephanie

    I’ve never been a fan of poetry. I guess I’m not smart enough to “get it.”

  22. Melissa

    You can say anything you want, yessir, but it’s the words that sing, they soar and descent… I bow to them… I run them down, I bite into them, I melt them down… I love words so much… The unexpected ones… The ones I wait for greedily or stalk until suddenly, they drop.

    Pablo Neruda

    For me, this guy is the bee’s knees.

    I’ve always found poetry more interesting if you deconstruct it. Get rid of the stanza frame and just read it with the punctuation so that you can get a hold of it. Then go back and read it the way the writer wanted you to.

  23. Tanya

    ps – new Blogroll makes me angry!

  24. Neil

    Mike F — Great poem.  It was actually Lynn who introduced me to Billy Collins, who I had never heard of before.

    Alice — I love that the “boob” poem had three titles.

    Elisabeth — I have never sat through a poetry reading.Better Safe — Thanks for the compliment about my lyrics. But that is NOT poetry. But the lyrics to “Gilligan’s Island” are.

    Tanya, do you hate what I did to the blogroll? I was actually going to write a post about that. Does it seem rude to put the blogroll on a separate page? Mine was getting so long, I was going bleary-eyed! I’ll put it to a vote over the weekend.

  25. Nicole

    Neil, you should read some Bukowski poetry – He has the story structure and concrete point you are looking for. I think you would really dig him.

  26. justrun

    Poetry is one of those “eye of the beholder” things. The good thing about it is that there’s a style of poetry for just about everyone. Accepting the challenge is probably the hardest part. It will probably come to you when you least expect it.

    Also, sending good thoughts to you and Sophia. Her diligence in her treatment is a story I’ll share with others. It’s a lesson so many can learn from.

  27. sanora

    I graduate tomorrow from USC with a Masters in Professional Writing, concentration in poetry. My thesis was to produce a full-length publishable manuscript of poetry. I go to poetry readings on a regular basis. Most of the time in reading others’ work, I fall back on the credo “I may not know art, but I know what I like..” sooo….what have I learned? Maybe, that like all art, it’s personal, it’s emotional. I, too, like that it makes you anxious Neil.

    Carl, the cinematographer, always tells me, “You do what I do, you capture a single image and try to tell the whole story with it. Sometimes it works.”

  28. Dagny

    I’ve always thought of poetry as songs without the music — and I love music. I am with Melissa on the Pablo Neruda. A former coworker told one of our students that if he wanted to impress a girl, he should read her some of Neruda’s works.

  29. Buffy

    Love this. But I blow at poetry.

  30. cruisin-mom

    Neil, I don’t think it’s a problem to have your blogroll on another page…just make “my blogroll” more noticable. (imho)

  31. AWE

    Don’t feel bad Neil, poetry scares the hell out of me too. It must be the sentence structure.

  32. Nance

    Creative Writing & English teacher here, Neil. Poetry is so subjective. Just the fact that you are poking around and reading some to see what you like is wonderful. Unless you really need to, don’t get caught up in why you enjoy or admire a poem. And if one truly intrigues you, start prodding at it awhile. William Stafford is one you may also like.

  33. amanda

    i love that poem. i feel the same way you do. i have been trying to get into a bit more, too. i like to well-rounded. when i was in san fran i bought a book of anne sexton poems. it’s on my bookshelf. i should probably open it at some point, otherwise, what’s the point. but anyway, i think we like this one because its visual, it describes a scene and what’s more, it’s a scene we can all probably imagine or relate to.

  34. jackt

    I am bad at writing poetry, but I love reading it. A friend once said she thought that poetry is the highest art form. I’m not sure what to make of that, but I can see how she feels that way.

  35. Tanya

    I vote you only link to me.

  36. serena

    I’ve felt the same way about poetry. After years of ambivalence, I discovered I loved slam poetry. Another poetry love…Sonia Sanchez. Gritty, real.

  37. Pearl

    Neil, if you can’t get into “real” poetry, get into fun poems, the type that Ogden Nash or Shel Silverstein wrote — guaranteed to help you crack a smile.

    I love interpreting poetry, and always have, but as the teacher commenter said, it is very subjective.

    I’ve been writing poetry my entire life — from limerick-type fun poems, to dark Holocaust-related poems, to love poems.

  38. He's Dead, Jim!

    There’s no such thing as “real” or “not real” poetry. It’s a matter of taste. Some poets (Neruda, Yeats, Maya Angelou, Shakespeare, cummings, Frost, Dickinson – to name a few) are able to reach into my gut and pull something out. To others, those folks miss the boat.

    Don’t let poetry intimidate you. Those who would have you be scared of poems are the same folks who would have you be intimidated by a long wine list. Just try some and see what you like. Over time, you’ll learn you like the Viognier and maybe not the Montepulciano. But you’ll never know what to order until you’ve taken a sip or two. And don’t be afraid to spit.

    On another note: I am riveted by “24” and fall asleep to “CSI” also!


  39. elle

    I love poetry!! I have a whole blog dedicated to my poetry. I never follow rules, I let it all come out and it feels awesome.

  40. cruisin-mom

    You took my advice,
    regarding the blogroll.
    It’s easy to read,
    You’re easy to cajole.
    As a reward,
    instead of pay.
    Make me your blogcrush
    of the day.

  41. peefer

    Lynn turned me on to poetry too. Or rather she convinced me not to be afraid of it. Now I’m just moderately anxious.

  42. anne arkham

    Try limericks. I feel you have great potential in the limerick-writing department.

  43. Fitèna

    I’ve always loved poetry. The ones who made me anxious were the poets and what we were taught about them and their lives.One poet actaully composed a love poem at a funeral. The tears running down the girl’s cheeks made him fall in love with her. I thought, this is “what’s beautiful about grief?” But then, I guess its all a question of perspective, we just don’t see things the same way.
    If you tell someone reading about a door being shut touched you, they’d think you’re going bananas, but it did. I loved this poem.
    Peoms are nothing else but sketched and painted feelings, moods and états d’âmes.
    Happy Carnival of the M.

  44. Marisa

    I don’t love all poetry, but Billy Collins has a special place in my heart. I especially love his poem about lanyards. My mom’s stuff is also pretty good.

  45. Lynn

    I adore this incredible discussion.

  46. Pearl

    Wow, looks like you really hit a hot topic here.

    Poetry makes me dizzy. Sometimes in a bad way, sometimes in a good way. When you don’t understand, it’s sort of like a zen koan that breaks through all the words that look like appropriate seemly logic. Just the same, I’d back the recommendation on Nash.

  47. Caryn

    Glad to see you’re dipping your toe into the poetry pool (of death!). Levertov is a great pick. You might also enjoy some Gangsta Haiku

  48. Anne

    Actually, the kiddie lit. bloggers are already posting poetry on Fridays. If your brain is fried by all this deep stuff, here’s a fun one to get you started:

  49. pattygal

    good topic. when i was a melodramitc teenager i wrote poetry, as is required for all melodramtic female teenagers. i thought i loved a boy bc he wrote poetry and i memorized classic poems bc i thought it made me “deep.” funny how when i actually started to live an adult life, poetry stopped mesmerizing me. i read things like your post and wish it touched me like it did when i was 16, naive, and believed “beauty will save the world” (dostoevsky said that). sometimes, i miss that teenager.

  50. Bill

    I highly recommend Neruda’s odes. They open your eyes to the wonder of small, everyday things. Like clothes.

  51. Alison

    I understand how you feel about poetry. When I read most poetry, my eyes glaze over (although I did make it through the Levertov poem you posted, probably because she came to my college when I was a student). I often think that I should make an effort to be more friendly to poetry, then my inner self screams “NO!”. Hmmm. I don’t know why that is.

    I’ll try to think about it more when I am over the jet lag.

  52. Jill

    I’ve often been freaked out and/or intimidated by poetry as well–and not the older work, in archaic language. That never bothered me. It seemed like something to learn. But contemporary poetry often has struck fear in my heart, and I’ve never felt as if my thoughts and words could ever live up to its complexity or sophistication. But then i realized that those were the asumptions of my insecurities, and though I may not be as widely-read in poetry as I am in other genres, I do still have the right as a reader to emotionally relate to what I can relate to, and to sometimes NOT feel connected to other works.

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