The Help Desk: Is poetry a scam?

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

My entire life, I’ve suspected poetry to be a scam. People only pretend to understand poetry because they don’t want to seem like idiots. I’m right, aren’t I?

Don, Maple Leaf

Dear Don,

Let me ask you this, Don: Who exactly would poetry be scamming? The billions of people who don't read it or the thousands of poets who could make more money robbing public fountains for pennies than they ever will off their words?

Poetry isn't a scam. It's just another shit-upon art form, like opera singing and rodeo queening. And like opera singing and rodeo queening, it has its place – the bathroom. A morning trip to the toilet is the perfect opportunity to ingest one poem well. It is quiet. You are trapped. Your attention has no place to wander but across the page.

Sure, some poems are willfully opaque. Some writers like being misunderstood because it makes them feel smarter (and smugly misunderstood). But most good poets are looking to connect with readers and while you might not catch on to every allusion, with practice you will get the gist and hopefully, the gist will resonate.

I have a stack of poetry books on the back of my toilet. Here are three of my favorites: The Colossus and Other Poems by Sylvia Plath, whom you may have heard of; Ceremony for the Choking Ghost by Karen Finneyfrock, who is a local poet, and whose collection is a remarkable tribute to her sister's death by heart failure; and Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis, who writes about the portrayal of black women in art and history.

I don't pretend to understand everything going on in these books but I think the ritual of trying makes me smarter.