How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Poets

April 26, 2013 | 3 4 min read


I never touched a salad until I was 19. Vegetation seemed best suited for rabbits, and vibrant green colors were for apple Jolly Ranchers.

While on a first date with a pretty girl named Leah, I choked down that first salad so as not to draw suspicion. By forcing myself to eat lettuce and tomato and some strange potion called balsamic vinaigrette, I learned to love leafy greens. And that woman learned to love me enough to eventually marry me.

I was recently reminded of this victory for trying new things while working on a bowl of spinach and croutons. It was fitting this wave of nostalgia came in April, since it is National Poetry Month. You see, I am once again a better person after learning to love something I previously found disgusting:


I was a lifelong literary elitist. In the world of serious letters, fiction writers filled out the top of my pyramid, followed by a massive gap and then everyone else. According to this geometry, poets occupied the same sub-basement level as dudes who type up restaurant menus. I once had a real-life encounter with a poet at four a.m. in a Las Vegas Denny’s. He leaned over the back of his booth, made some awkward introduction, and began reciting lines from a wrinkled paper about the haunting sound wind makes or some nonsense.

This encounter gave me an acute poet-phobia that lasted for years.

Understandably, my skepticism was on Orange Alert after I was invited to be the only fiction writer performing at a couple different poetry readings last month. But, to my shock, I discovered that poets are human beings like you and me! Even more incredible, I liked poets. In fact, I liked them more than fiction writers.

I still don’t fully understand their art form, but poets get a gold medal in my book. If I knew what iambic pentameter was, I’d compose one of those deep, rhymeless poem-things in their honor. Instead, the best I can offer is an anthropological study regarding poets and fiction writers.

Here were my findings after playing Jane Goodall amidst the poetry jungle.

Poets are Well Groomed: While observing them, I noted several nice haircuts, many sharp dressers, and an overall pleasant aroma in the room.

Fiction writers, on the other hand, have been known to go several weeks without shaving. You can imagine what that kind of hygiene scheduling means for our shower routine.

Poets are Friendly: My anthropological research discovered a community of poets discussing plans to hang out later, attend parties (“Wait,” I said, “you guys have poet parties? Wow!”) and even go bowling with one another. Either there is some amazing antidepressant that comes packaged along with the collected works of John Ashbery or poets generally find camaraderie in their passion for the written word. They also seem mostly sober.

Meanwhile, fiction writers tend to avoid other fictioneers like a bill stamped: FINAL NOTICE. Most novelists and short story writers practice serious isolationism. We are usually too busy to fraternize since we are sitting in a small room, muttering to ourselves. When I have spent time with other novelists, we are usually drunk. Our gatherings almost always include a few rounds of “Have you ever read X?” followed by long, silent sipping breaks.

Poets are Courteous: While studying poets in their natural habitat (One reading was at a coffee shop and the other at a university), I noted that all eyes were focused when the featured poets spoke. Even more stunning, the poets gave open mic readers the same level of attention.

Fiction writers (yours truly included) usually sketch doodles or think about time travel while everyone else reads. There is a look in our eyes that suggests severe head trauma.

Poets Enjoy Writing: Two different poets said they don’t begin writing without first cracking open a beer. They talked about the act of writing with a smile. There seemed to be an aura of fun around their process.

Fiction writers have been known to feel guilty if they are not miserable and muttering. Somewhere, we have been told this makes great art. Especially the muttering.

Poets Share: On several occasions, I overheard poets happily agreeing to take a look at one another’s work and give feedback.

In fiction circles it is a well-known fact that when someone asks, “Hey, will you take a look at my manuscript?” the only acceptable response is the look of horror, the look of discomfort, or muttering.

Poets are Confident: Poets appear eager to read aloud their new work. At one reading even the featured poet — a guy with a couple of collections released by highly respected poetry presses (One month ago I didn’t even know those four words existed side-by-side!) — read from fresh, unpublished material. Later, while taking part in a roundtable discussion at the university, several poets told me they always want to read untested poems to see how they work.

During that same discussion the poets all seemed mildly saddened that I couldn’t imagine reading anything in public that I haven’t chipped away at for years.

Poets Smile: I wish I’d taken pictures as proof. Trust me, it’s true. While studying these fascinating creatures I spotted several happy poets. Many amused poets. Even an enthusiastic one.

Most fiction writers have only been known to display teeth while battling indigestion or growling at roommates for making too much noise.

So, what were my anthropological conclusions? Will I start wearing a turtleneck and composing couplets with a fountain pen? (While I never saw either turtlenecks or fountain pens in use, some part of my brain still says that’s what poets do in private.)

Was I inspired to ask my local librarian to point me toward the mildewed corner where they keep all the poetry?

Will I at least stop muttering to myself in a dark room?

The answer to all these questions is a firm: “Eh, probably not.” Like I said, I frankly still have a difficult time wrapping my mind around poetry. But that does not mean these Neruda-loving weirdoes don’t have something to teach me.

Fiction writers would be better off by embracing the poet’s mentality. The world of fiction would be a saner place by utilizing radical ideas like enjoying other writers and their work. By spending time together. By listening. That is why I am not only declaring my love for the men and women of poetry, but vowing to spend more time with them. Maybe one day — much like Jane Goodall learning to peel a banana with her feet — I, too, will behave more like my subjects. More like a poet.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

is the author of the bestselling novel, Broken Piano for President (lazy Fascist Press), and three other books. His writing appears in the New York Times, Esquire, Oxford American, Salon and more. He lives in Louisville, KY with a wife, son, and fragile ego.