Core Curriculum: The Power of a Poem

When Sarah Mesle, editor of the Avidly Reads series at NYU Press, slid into my DMs and asked if I might want to write a book, maybe a book about poetry, I was elated and also wanted to barf. 

It was a difficult time for me. I had recently started working as an administrator at UCLA after a number of years teaching English in contingent professor positions and trying, and failing, to get a tenure-track job. I really liked my new job, but I was carrying a lot of feelings about my old one. Reading and writing about literature–which once brought me deep, satisfying, intellectual joy–now felt shot through with pain. Reading and writing about poetry: especially so. I had so loved being an English professor and I wasn’t one anymore. And while I knew I had it in me to write a book, I didn’t know if I could withstand writing this one. 

I did it anyway. Avidly Reads is a series in which “authors account for, and even savor, their own emotional relationships to the subjects they explore” and this was the right mode for me at the right moment. In order to write a book about poetry, I had to rethink my relationship to poetry, and I knew that that rethinking had to be part of the book. If I was no longer an English professor who spent big chunks of her life reading, talking about, writing about, and teaching poems: what could poetry mean to me? Why might I read poetry, if it wasn’t my job to read poetry anymore? 

That question was not rhetorical. I decided to structure the book around five reasons people might read poetry: to want, to learn, to resist, to soothe, to lose, and connected each reason with a kind of poem: the sonnet, the alphabet poem, the documentary poem, the internet poem, the villanelle. Secretly, or maybe not-so-secretly to anyone who was paying attention, I was trying to piece together the reasons why I might read poems again by looking at the reasons that I had read them in the past, and the reasons others were reading them now. In writing the book, I hoped I could find a way back to poetry. 

Throughout Avidly Reads Poetry, I am committed to thinking about poetry as instrumental. Poetry is not some rarefied thing, but something that we–and I imagine an expansive US American “we” throughout the book–can and do use to feel and protest and learn and think. When I was getting my PhD and teaching poetry regularly, I had always been much more interested in how a poem worked internally rather than how it could be used by those who read it. I love a scholarly argument about meter or metaphor; I get off intellectually on a good close reading. And while I do some close reading in Avidly Reads Poetry, it’s not the kind I would do in my peer-reviewed academic writing. I have left that kind of writing behind. It’s not my job, anymore, to write it. 

I wrote a very different book than I might have written if I were on a more traditional academic career path. The Avidly series gave me an opportunity to write a book that was accessible to people who hadn’t spent a lifetime reading poems in universities, a book attuned to the particularities of language but with a big broad scope, a book in which I could acknowledge that poetry has made me who I am, and that I am looking, in poetry, for who I might become.  

Avidly Reads Poetry is a short book, but I hope it feels big. 

avidly reads poetry cover

Jacquelyn Ardam is the Assistant Director of UCLA’s Undergraduate Research Center for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, and the author of Avidly Reads: Poetry, out now from NYU Press.