The first crit­i­cal essay I ever wrote was about the movie Dead Poets Soci­ety, which came out when I was four­teen. I wasn’t yet writ­ing poet­ry myself, and I didn’t have any the­o­ries about why it should be read or taught. I just felt that the way the movie rep­re­sent­ed lit­er­a­ture need­ed to be refut­ed, like a lie or libel.

I don’t remem­ber exact­ly what I wrote about the movie for my high school’s opin­ion mag­a­zine, but today I would put it like this: While claim­ing to exalt poet­ry, Dead Poets Soci­ety actu­al­ly mocks it by den­i­grat­ing its key val­ue — artic­u­la­tion. The whole pur­pose of lan­guage is to artic­u­late expe­ri­ence, to turn pri­vate, hid­den thoughts and feel­ings into pub­lic sym­bols that can be shared and reflect­ed on. When an expe­ri­ence is espe­cial­ly com­pli­cat­ed and elu­sive, lan­guage has to be wrenched out of its usu­al pat­terns to cap­ture it, and the result is poetry.

Poet­ry is often more obscure than prose, yet at its best it’s also more mean­ing­ful, because it com­mu­ni­cates on more wave­lengths simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. A poem makes use not just of words and sen­tences but of vow­el sounds, syl­lab­ic pat­terns, rhyme schemes, ety­molo­gies, con­no­ta­tions, and allu­sions. As Keats told Shel­ley, the poet should load every rift with ore.

But in Dead Poets Soci­ety, the high­est val­ue is being inar­tic­u­late. This is clear from the moment Mr. Keat­ing tells the class to tear out the intro­duc­tion from their poet­ry text­books. After all, its title is Under­stand­ing Poet­ry, and the point of poet­ry isn’t to under­stand it but to feel it, pro­claims Mr. Keat­ing. Under­stand­ing is an obsta­cle: Use your imag­i­na­tion! First thing that pops to your mind, even if it’s gib­ber­ish!” Mr. Keat­ing hec­tors a stu­dent. The boys learn to express their deep feel­ings by yaw­ping and stand­ing on their desks. Robert Sean Leonard proves he is the deep­est of all by killing himself.

Lat­er I would learn that the roman­ti­cism of Dead Poets Soci­ety has a his­to­ry and a pedi­gree. Call it a Hol­ly­wood remake of William Wordsworth’s Inti­ma­tions of Immor­tal­i­ty”: To me the mean­est flower that blows can give/​Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” But Wordsworth’s inar­tic­u­la­cy is impres­sive because he is able to express so much. His poet­ry illu­mi­nates such depths that what lies beyond must be unlightable, like the ocean floor.

You can’t learn to write a poem by read­ing an essay about poet­ry any more than you can learn to walk by read­ing a man­u­al on walking.

For me, how­ev­er, right at the begin­ning of my life as a read­er and writer — before the begin­ning, even — the movie felt inim­i­cal, the way we know cer­tain foods are poi­so­nous because they taste bit­ter. At four­teen, feel­ing is only too easy; what’s hard is under­stand­ing and artic­u­lat­ing what you feel. But Hol­ly­wood is noth­ing if not demo­c­ra­t­ic, so it makes sense that a movie would say that the easy part is all that counts.

For an aspir­ing writer, how­ev­er, this is a trap, since the dif­fer­ence between feel­ing poet­ic and writ­ing poems is per­haps the hard­est gap to bridge. The great poets agree that the process from feel­ing to expres­sion requires a touch of cold­ness, a cer­tain detach­ment. It was Wordsworth who defined poet­ry as emo­tion rec­ol­lect­ed in tran­quil­i­ty,” imply­ing that it’s impos­si­ble to write about a feel­ing while still in its grip. Rather, he says in the Pref­ace to Lyri­cal Bal­lads, it has to pass away and then be recre­at­ed in the mind: 

The emo­tion is con­tem­plat­ed till, by a species of reac­tion, the tran­quil­i­ty grad­u­al­ly dis­ap­pears, and an emo­tion, kin­dred to that which was before the sub­ject of con­tem­pla­tion, is grad­u­al­ly produced.”

T.S. Eliot makes the same point more assertive­ly in his essay Tra­di­tion and the Indi­vid­ual Tal­ent,” dis­tin­guish­ing between the per­son­al emo­tions we expe­ri­ence in life and the art emo­tions” we find in poet­ry. It is not in his per­son­al emo­tions, the emo­tions pro­voked by par­tic­u­lar events in his life, that the poet is in any way remark­able or inter­est­ing,” Eliot writes. He com­pares the poet to a cat­a­lyst in a chem­i­cal reac­tion, facil­i­tat­ing the trans­for­ma­tion of expe­ri­ence into art while remain­ing per­son­al­ly unchanged.

When I start­ed try­ing to write poet­ry, at age fif­teen, I hadn’t read these famous texts. But even if I had, it wouldn’t have helped much. You can’t learn to write a poem by read­ing an essay about poet­ry any more than you can learn to walk by read­ing a man­u­al on walk­ing. Like a tod­dler, you can’t do it until one day you can, and even then you couldn’t explain exact­ly how. It’s as if impuls­es and pieces of knowl­edge that you already pos­sessed rearranged them­selves into a new shape and became legible.

For me, the inter­val between want­i­ng to be a poet and writ­ing some­thing I could rec­og­nize as a poem felt painful­ly long. From ages fif­teen to nine­teen, there were noth­ing but false starts and self-doubt. I would try to write, be dis­mayed by the result, and resign myself to giv­ing up, before try­ing again weeks or months lat­er. Per­haps it was sim­ply a sit­u­a­tion that called for patience, like wait­ing for a growth spurt dur­ing puber­ty. The brain had to wire itself the right way and refused to be hurried.

But in ret­ro­spect, I can see that I made things hard­er for myself by want­i­ng it too much, or in the wrong way. The more impor­tant poet­ry seemed to me, the more dif­fi­cult it was to imag­ine myself writ­ing it; the more dif­fi­cult it was to write, the more ele­vat­ed and remote it seemed. The metaphor of woo­ing the muse is obso­lete, but writ­ing and courtship have this in com­mon, that the best way to dri­ve away the object of desire is to place them on a pedestal — a mis­take to which ado­les­cents are espe­cial­ly prone. It’s far more pro­duc­tive to deal direct­ly, as with a peer: Sing, god­dess,” Homer begins, and she does.

This piece is a part of the Berru Poet­ry Series, which sup­ports Jew­ish poet­ry and poets on PB Dai­lyJBC also awards the Berru Poet­ry Award in mem­o­ry of Ruth and Bernie Wein­flash as a part of the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards. Click here to see the 2021 win­ner of the prize. If you’re inter­est­ed in par­tic­i­pat­ing in the series, please check out the guide­lines here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and crit­ic whose writ­ing appears reg­u­lar­ly in The New York­er and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He is the author of three pre­vi­ous col­lec­tions of poet­ry and sev­er­al books of crit­i­cism and biog­ra­phy, and has received a Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship. An edi­tor at the Wall Street Jour­nal, he has taught at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and Sarah Lawrence Col­lege. He was born in Los Ange­les and now lives in New York City.