National Poetry Month highlights beloved literary art form
Every April, poets and poetry lovers from around the country celebrate the importance and appreciation of poetry during National Poetry Month. University of Houston-Clear Lake Professor of Literature Elizabeth Klett shared her thoughts on poetry earlier this month through a video chat.
QUESTION: National Poetry Month was established in 1996 to mark poetry’s important place in our culture. Do you remember when the first time you fell in love with a poem and what poem it was?
ANSWER: The first time I started to love poetry was when I first started learning about Shakespeare. I was actually in fifth grade, and I learned a portion of “Macbeth,” which doesn’t sound appropriate for the fifth grade. It was his “Tomorrow and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech from the end of the play. And it really struck me. I was probably 10 or 11, and I remember thinking that this is different than just saying it in regular language. I could feel an emotional connection to it, and it was probably the first time that I started thinking about Shakespeare and what poetry meant to me.
QUESTION: Like many, I had been assigned the typical high school poetry in high school such as Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” etc., but my real introduction to poetry came when I was a graduate student at UHCL and taking classes from Drs. Gretchen Mieszkowski, Carol Snyder, John Snyder and John Gorman. That was when I definitely learned to love and appreciate poetry. When did you first know that poetry would help define (or be an important part) of your life’s work?
ANSWER: As an undergraduate I took a class on Romantic poetry, the poetry of the British early 19th Century: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley… And I think it was the first time that non-dramatic poetry struck me forcibly, because before that, it had mainly been Shakespeare and dramatic poetry.
But, that class was the first time I really felt a connection to lyric poetry, and I just fell in love with it. I don’t actually get to teach poetry like that all that much, but I try to get it in every now and again when I can. I had an amazing professor in that class at Drew University and he read the poems so beautifully. He put so much meaning in them that I felt like I understood it for the first time, so that really struck me and it was “off to the races” from there. I took more poetry classes as an undergraduate after that and as a graduate student as well.
QUESTION: While looking at your impressive CV, I noticed quite a bit of literary criticism, books, essays and book chapters. I didn’t notice any poetry titles listed. Do you write your own poetry? If so, what inspires you?
ANSWER: I wish I could say that I write poetry, but I don’t. Unfortunately, I’m really not a creative writer.
I wrote poetry as a child and teenager, and I remember very clearly working very hard on, what I considered, an epic poem about Mary Queen of Scots. I’m not sure why I wrote an epic poem about Mary Queen of Scots. I was probably about 11 or 12. I worked really hard on it. It rhymed. And, I remember really taking the time with the craft of that. And that was as far as I’ve gone with writing poetry.
I did some playwriting in college, but that is my most recent creative output. My writing now is literary criticism.
QUESTION: What do you think makes poetry such a universal form of art? Why does it appeal to so many people?
ANSWER: I think it’s a communal experience, particularly when it is read aloud, and I think it goes back to where literature began. I think about how, for example, when in ancient Greece, they performed Homer’s epic poems -- “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” -- and how they were performed. They were sung.
People experienced them in a communal manner, and we still do that, which I think is great. I think when you hear someone read their work aloud, and you can respond to it as an audience … as a group … it can be very emotional in a variety of ways.
I remember hearing (Professor of Literature) John Gorman, my former colleague, read his work many times and it was so enjoyable, because he just brought his personality to bear on the work, and you experience it again as a group. Mostly, he was writing humorous poems, but he treated serious subjects too, and that was also enjoyable to experience as a group.
I think that is something we need even if we don’t know we need it.
QUESTION: What would you say most well-written poems have in common?
ANSWER: I think what poetry can do … what great poets do … is to distill human experiences into a kind of compact, highly emotional vivid form so that poets can take universal experiences – emotions we have all had, experiences that we have all had – and they can compress them into a form where we are struck by them; where we have an emotional response to them.
We hear or experience those ideas with fresh eyes. We might be surprised by something we have a connection to that is expressed in language that is completely new and fresh. I think that is the most astonishing thing about that poets can do.
And, I think, also, as I said before, I come from a very performance-focused background, so to me, poetry really deserves to be read aloud and to be heard. As I mentioned before, I think that is how we experienced the form originally, going back thousands of years.
I did have a professor in grad school, taking a class on Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Gerard Manley Hopkins and she insisted that all of the students memorize one of the poems and deliver it. And I loved that of course. And she said the reason is because poetry should be heard and also, you have a different relationship to the poem when you speak it. And it’s really true. I think everyone has to try that … not only hear people read poetry aloud, but also to speak it themselves, because it becomes personal when you do that.
QUESTION: In your online university bio, you mention you are an audiobook narrator and that you have participated in audio recordings of many writers at LibriVox.org. How did you get involved with audio books? How many recordings do you have and which one would you highlight for Poetry Month?
ANSWER: I come from an acting background. I earned a theater degree as an undergraduate as well as an English degree. So, I wanted to continue with some sort of performance, even after I stopped performing on stage. I started recording for LibriVox, which is a volunteer-run site that offers free audio versions of public domain books. I started volunteering for them in 2007, and I worked for them for about 8 years.
From there, I transitioned to performing professionally, which is what I do now. I have a sort of secondary career as a professional narrator. I read a lot of poetry when I was a LibriVox narrator. I do very few poems now, although, I did do a recording of the Bronte sisters’ poems not too long ago with two other female narrators, so that is available on Audible as a professional recording.
As a LibriVox narrator, what I really tried to do was to enrich the catalog that they had and find some more obscure poets, especially women poets that hadn’t necessarily been recorded. So, for example, I chose poets like Phillis Wheatley, who is the first African American woman poet; actually, the first African American of either gender to publish a book of poetry in the late 18th century, and some even earlier poets. I also recorded from the period I study, which is the period in which Shakespeare was writing, the 16th and 17th centuries. I recorded poems by Lady Mary Wroth, who is the only British female poet from that period to have published a sonnet sequence. We are very familiar with Shakespeare’s sonnets and other male writers, but she is pretty amazing too, and I wanted to bring her to light. I also read writers like Aemilia Lanyer, from the same period, who was the first British woman to publish a book of poetry.
I highlighted some other female poets as well. For example, I enjoy teaching the work of Christina Rossetti, from the 19th century. I teach her work pretty frequently so I had to make sure I recorded a collection of her work. I try to bring to light the poets who have been overlooked in favor of more famous ones.
QUESTION: Will you read one of your favorite poems for us now?
ANSWER: To experience Professor Klett’s reply to this question, go to 12:50 of her video interview for her reading of Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood by William Wordsworth.