Friday, April 15, 2016

Guest Post: Not a Poet

As a nod to April being National Poetry Month, I invited Michael Taeger to talk about his adventures as a prose writer reading (and writing) poetry. Enjoy!

While I’m not a poet, I am a writer. And as a writer, whenever I hear advice about writing that sounds plausible, even if it’s outside of my comfort zone or nominal area of interest, I pay attention. So when Andre Dubus III, author of The House of Sand and Fog, gave a reading and Q&A in the summer of ‘14, I listened to what he had to say, hoping for insight. After his good-not-great reading, someone in the crowd asked him what he read. Normally a boring question with boring answers, he said, “Every night before I go to sleep, I read from a book of poetry.”

Well, I thought. That’s unexpected.

He went on to explain that while he isn’t a poet, he reads poetry because it engages dormany areas of his brain; that poets string words and phrases together in ways that make him pause and think about the universe; that his creativity, sparked by poetry, continues into his prose-writing. While he never neglects his other reading, poetry is his reset button.

A couple months later, Abigail Thomas (author of Safekeeping) gave a lecture and reading that I attended. again, an audience member asked for her reading habits. She said, “I always keep poetry on my nightstand.” She went on to echo many of Dubus’ words, about creativity and imagery and soft reset.

When Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Michael Chabon gave a lecture to my MFA program in early 2015, I raised my own hand. “I’ve been hearing that a lot of prose writers read poetry regularly. Do you keep that practice?”

I probably don’t have to write down his answer. He reads poems for the same reasons that Dubus and Thomas do; because poetry operates on a different level than prose. It is sentence-level writing, devoted to nothing but imagery, ideas and sounds. Reading good poetry is weight-lifting for the brain.

Maybe I should give it a try.

Since then, I’ve made a conscious effort to read more poetry: 10 (or so) complete books since April. It’s been a success, one that’s made me excited to continue. Traci Brimhall’s book of post-apocalyptic poetry, Our Lady of the Water, made me second-guess what poetry can do and and former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s Splitting an Order, made me cry through painfully honest, deceptively simple language. I can’t remember the last time a book evoked tears or reconstructed my entire perception.

In addition, I discovered that apart from personal gleanings, poetry affected my writing as well. Now, I’m not suddenly an entirely different writer, but I pay more attention to imagery and structure than I ever did before. I am more attuned to, and value more, interesting phrasing and unusual metaphors.

It’s obvious that other authors do the same. Go back and read All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy or One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez. The cadences and sentence structure of those brilliant novels is poetry. The prose lilts and elevates and turns around and around, forcing the reader to keep up with the journey. Besides telling a story, those novels are devoted to and in love with words.

On my nightstand right now are half a dozen books of poetry, carefully interspersed with works of prose. I’m currently reading Scarecrone by Melissa Broder, Anna Slesinski’s book of erasure poems Eating the Sun, and Bruce Wayne Sullivan’s bartender poems, Reflections from the Other Side, along with my normal fare of classic literature, graphic novels and sci fi/fantasy. And I have a stack of others up to my knees that just hasn’t made it to the table yet.

I’m still not a poet, but I’m more complete as a writer. And maybe I’ll be a poet someday. It’s always possible. 

Michael B. Tager is a writer. He is the author of the fiction collection "Always Tomorrow" and "Pop Culture Poems," a poetry chapbook (Mason Jar Press). He is currently writing a book of memoir told through essays about video games. He likes Buffy and the Baltimore Orioles. Find more of his work online at

(Also, if you are interested in having Michael guest post for your own blog, connect with him on twitter @ideosinkrasee)


  1. Great post! I mostly ignored poetry until a couple of years ago, but when I started reading it, I found it was so rich and deep - definitely heavy lifting for the brain. There's so much texture to poetry, it's a challenge to read, but so worth it!

    1. It really is a challenge, but the rewards are wonderful!

  2. This was an excellent post! I cannot write poetry to save my life, even when I'm in the inspired mood ;) However, I love to read it and it really stretches my literal, black-and-white brain. It's food for the soul. I wish more people appreciated it

    1. I find it does the same for me. I take things very literally. Poetry helps.

  3. This is really, really interesting! (And I feel happy because I've actually heard of, and read a book by, Michael Chabon) I don't read a lot of poetry, except stuff from bloggers that I find online, but I do occasionally try to write some. But I think this idea about writing prose and how poetry can affect it. Interesting post!

  4. Love this! I always have multiple books of poetry by my bed, but this year I've properly committed to reading it. I kind of thought I was doing it because a) I do write it, b) I have an intense to READ ALL THE BOOKS (which includes all the genres) and c) I enjoy it, but that about a sentence level makes perfect sense! Thanks for sharing this, Michael and Sophia.

    1. Thanks for reading, Emily! What books of poetry are you reading, anyway?

    2. At the moment I'm rereading Eliot's Complete Works (love that man) and also Shakespeare's Sonnets (appropriate today of all days!), and recently I've also read Carol Ann Duffy's Selected Poems, Rapture and The World's Wife, Keats' complete works and Hughes (my favourite)'s Remains of Elmet and Poetry in the Making. All really great books. What about you?

    3. I'm reading Thea Brown's book, Think of the Danger, at the moment. It's pretty dope. I go to a lot of local readings so my stacks of books never have a chance to dwindle. :-)


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