What if poetry were as recognizable to the general public as commercial jingles (The best part of waking up, is Folger’s in your cup), pop music, or celebrities? I don’t mean the handful of poems most people know from high school English classes—Two roads diverged in a yellow wood; I sound my barbaric yawp…—but the myriad poets and poems whose lyrics have the power to transform the reader and, in turn, society and the world. What if, in short, more of us dove headfirst into poetry in times of difficulty as well as of joy: to celebrate, to mourn, to feel, to bridge the gap between who we are and who we wish to be?
Ask a person on the street if they like poetry, and chances are they’ll respond with some variation of, “Not really. I just don’t get it.” In Why Poetry, Matthew Zapruder attributes this response to the fact that “so many of us have been taught to read poetry as if its words mean something other than what they actually mean,” as if poems “were designed to communicate messages, albeit in a confusing way” and “the student’s job [were] to discover” the message and write about it in an essay. But while I agree with his diagnosis, in blaming the education system, Zapruder, and far too many poets, miss another basic barrier to the enjoyment of poetry: simply orienting oneself in a poem, understanding its context. We poets are also at fault.
Consider Break, Break, Break by Tennyson, a poem that explores themes of nostalgia, loss, and the passage of time, and that was inspired by the death of a close friend of the poet. Had Tennyson written a footnote that read, “RIP Arthur Hallam, 1842” (or something along those lines), the reader would have been able to establish a more intimate connection with the poet, for knowing that one is writing about a specific loss is more powerful than reading about loss in general. Further, her focus could have been entirely placed on the words, rather than being distracted by the “Why” of the piece (“Is this about the passage of time? Did someone die? Is the poet just having a bad day? Is it a dream? Help!”)
This focus on the language is, according to Zapruder, how poetry should be read: “So many people assume that what is difficult about poetry is that its meaning is hidden,” but really any “meaningful experience with poetry begins with first reading literally, more literally than we do any other kind of writing.” But how is one to read the words literally if they don’t know the context? Tennyson isn’t hiding that his friend has died, but he is withholding from us the reason for his choosing to pick up his pen on a particular day and write about a particular topic. Absent that understanding, the first reading of the poem is made more complicated, more distracting to the reader. As a result, she struggles to “experience the true difficulty—and reward—of poetry,” which is “reading what is actually on the page…and allowing one’s imagination to adjust to the strangeness of what is there.” Giving someone a map does not prevent them from an awe-inspiring journey, but without a map they risk getting lost and turning back.
Footnotes are not the only way to give the reader context and create a more intimate connection between her and the poet. One of the best examples of this is Audre Lorde’s Power. We know the poem is about a police shooting because in the poem itself she writes, “A policeman who shot down a ten-year-old in Queens / stood over the boy…” And later on, “Today that 37-year-old white man / with 13 years of police forcing / was set free.” Here we don’t need to know the exact shooting she’s referring to, for we have enough to situate ourselves in the poem and understand what’s behind it. Thus, in our first reading we can read “what is actually on the page” without scratching our heads, wondering if the poem is about police brutality, racism, nostalgia, a bad dream, or something else. The context gives space for the content to shine through with ultimate clarity; in this space, we can explore the link between the poem and our lives, which is, in the end, why we read poetry—because it is about us, our lives, our world, our truth.
Another great example is move by Lucille Clifton. She opens the poem with a brief introduction that could have also worked as a footnote. In it, she explains the history behind the piece: a 1985 bombing in Philadelphia that killed eleven people and in which “sixty-one homes in [the city] were destroyed.” While this is an extreme example of a poem whose meaning would be nearly impossible to grasp without context—if one doesn’t know that the group’s name was move, neither the title nor the poem itself would make much sense—it demonstrates that the better prepared we are for the impact of the work, the more likely we are to be impacted.
Of course, not all poems deal with an event or a specific experience. Regardless, they can either welcome the reader or needlessly make her run a gauntlet. In The Language of the Brag, Sharon Olds powerfully speaks of her experience as a woman in a society that values those who “achieve something at the centre of a crowd.” It is clear in the poem that Olds is a mother, but she is not writing about giving birth or motherhood; rather, the piece deals with questions of what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated, achievement-oriented country. Yet the context is clear, even without footnotes (though it could have been interesting to include a footnote about, say, the percentage of African American women that die in childbirth, or the pay discrepancy between men and women): “I have lain down and sweated and shaken / and passed blood and feces and water and / slowly alone in the center of a circle I have / passed the new person out…” The reader can stop worrying about understanding the poem and, instead, be like a harried passenger who has caught the train and now ponders the country as it streams past her window, being taken to places that, familiar or not, are nevertheless new to her each time.
That poets often elide the context speaks to the fear of delivering a poem that reads as a pre-opened gift: we fear the banal, the trite, the too-obvious. Sometimes we confuse accessibility with a lack of profundity; sometimes we interpret the political and the topical—a poem about a natural disaster, a police shooting, or even tax policy—as being inherently dull, beneath the artform. But as Carl Phillips writes in Foliage, poetry is “the transformation of experience, not the transcription.” There is no reason why revealing the event or experience or feeling undergirding a poem would degrade the reader’s experience; the question is whether or not the poet is able to transform rather than transcribe. A reader can intuit the difference between prose masquerading as poetry and authentic poetry; it is incumbent on us to trust them to make that determination.
It also the poet’s responsibility to write something that, first, people will want to take the time to read, and second, that will not only transport the reader but also hold their attention long enough for the transportation to take place. Let’s face it: in the age of social media, same-day shipping, and all manner of information and entertainment available to us at the click of a button, we are less and less able to sit down and focus. If poetry is as powerful as we claim, we are doing ourselves and the reading public a disservice if we don’t open the door to our magical world just a crack. Not only does this not cheapen the poetic experience, it strengthens it, welcomes the reader in, and gives them the chance to settle down on the couch and journey with us to a place of beauty, horror, pain, sadness and, if we’re lucky, Truth. The footnote is a phenomenally simple and effective tool (though not the only one, to be sure) for opening that door.
Perhaps over time poets will invite in enough people that we will elbow our way from the subconscious—distant figures to whom we occasionally turn for inspiration—into the front and center of our minds and lives, making room for poetry amidst the crowded shelves of commerce, celebrity culture, bad music, and mind-numbing entertainment that keeps us drowsy in the midst of the grandeur of the world.
 Zapruder, Matthew. Why Poetry. Ecco, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2018.
 Lorde, Audre. “Power.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/53918/power-56d233adafeb3.
 Strand, Mark, and Eavan Boland. The Making of a Poem: a Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms. W.W. Norton & Company, 2005. Page 279
 Olds, Sharon. Satan Says. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995.
 Phillips, Carl. “Foliage.” The Kenyon Review, 1 Jan. 2014, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24242232?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.