On Writing a Guide to Poetry (Part I)

By | December 8, 2015

Guest Post by Mark Yakich on the 1st edition of Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide

I’d wanted to call my book Poetry: A Guide for the Perplexed—not only because Bloomsbury has a series called “Guides for the Perplexed,” riffing off Maimonides’ 12th-century The Guide for the Perplexed, but because so many poems leave so many readers nonplussed—myself included.

I am not someone who devoured books as a child. In fact, I disliked books, did not enjoy reading, and found poetry to be especially irrelevant to my life…all the way up until my late twenties. But that’s not exactly why I first began writing Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide—as a means of getting people interested in poems. I wrote it chiefly for my students.

To be frank, over fifteen years of teaching poetry I’d gotten tired of repeating myself. For example, whenever my students and I would investigate certain figurative language, a question would invariably arise: What’s the difference between a metaphor and a simile? Someone would provide this answer: “A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things. And a simile is a comparison that uses like or as.” I’d been taught this same reply in formative schooling and had learned nothing from it besides that it was a definition to memorize for a quiz. That is, simply identifying a metaphor or a simile helped me not one bit in understanding a poem. So, as a teacher of poems now, I ask a follow-up question: So why use a simile instead of a metaphor? If there’s an answer from a student, more often than not, it is: “Hell if I know.”

Here is where I employ one of my bromides:

Set aside the definitions you were given long ago, and think of a metaphor as a substitution, as in an equation: Bill is a bear this morning. In mathematical terms, “is” is “equals.” So: Bill = bear. But a simile functions a little differently. Bill is like a bear this morning. Bill ≃ bear. The substitution, or the transference, isn’t a full one.

While it may take another example or two to get across the notion of metaphor as nothing more than substitution (metaphor doesn’t necessarily have to compare “two unlike things”), students will begin to engage poetry from an angle they are unaccustomed to.

And as soon as they think they have a handle on it, I might offer the following:

If one accepts that metaphor is substitution, then what is one to do with T. S. Eliot’s proposition that “Nothing in this world or the next is a substitute for anything else”? Metaphor, that is, becomes only a pseudo-substitution. Even two identical eggs aren’t actually identical: one sits next to the other in the carton and they can be switched around, but the one is never materially the other. Metaphor is a kind of necessary deception that we accept mostly unthinkingly.

And that is precisely what reading and writing poems can help us avoid: going throughout our daily business without thinking. Because after I collected all these little strategies and personal bromides about reading and writing poems, I realized that the book I wrote wasn’t only about how to view poetry, but how to view day-to-day living. And last year while on sabbatical (away from teaching) I was able to explore and hone these thoughts into a book—a book I wish I’d had long ago when I had my first (dis)taste of poetry.


Cover of Poetry: A Survivor's Guide by Mark Yakich, a
Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide, Second Edition

Mark Yakich is is the Gregory F. Curtin, S.J. Distinguished Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans, USA, where he has been editor of New Orleans Review since 2012. He is the author of the poetry collections Unrelated Individuals Forming a Group Waiting to Cross (2004), The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine (2008), and Spiritual Exercises (2019); a novel, A Meaning for Wife (2011); and Football (Bloomsbury, 2022). Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide is now in its 2nd edition.

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