The Nature of Grit

As part of my new job as a Latin teacher at a private upper school, I am reading Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed over the summer. I’ve found it absolutely fascinating, especially in examining my own life choices and how I would like to make a life for my students and one day my own children. Tough goes into an extensive amount of research which highlights how early adversity effects children (even down to the physiological level) and how important it is that character be taught, that it not be something we view as “fixed,” but as something we can learn. If we believe that character traits can be taught, we believe we can change, that we can grow to become optimistic instead of pessimistic, grow to become willing to take healthy risks, etc.

Tough mentions that the seven character traits likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement (according to Chris Peterson, coauthor of Character Strengths and Virtues) are grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.

Grit. noun. Small, loose particles of stone or sand. verb. Clench (the teeth), esp. in order to keep one’s resolve when faced with an unpleasant or painful duty.

Gritty. adj. 1. Containing or covered with grit. 2. Showing courage and resolve for long-term goals.

I am gritty. How can I be a poet and not be? We all are rolled in the dirt of how hard and insensitive the world seems toward us. We are the forgotten, slightly amusing lot.

I imagine we’re charming in what I can only describe as how you might feel toward a friend you love who has a character defect that isn’t terrible, but is annoying. Like the guy who splurges on things you find unnecessary (like a large canvas painting of a goat), but then won’t go out for a month because he’s so strapped for cash. Or the friend who asks if you’ll meet her at noon for lunch, texts you at 11am to see if you can do 11:45 instead, but then she still shows up at 12.

These traits are a little annoying, but we still love our friends, and I imagine people feel this way toward us poets too. “Oh, you’re still doing that poetry thing? Oh,” friends have said to me. While I was pursuing an MFA in poetry, my father would jokingly tell people that his daughter was pursuing a degree in rap. When I told acquaintances of mine that my chapbook was being published, not only did they have no idea what a chapbook was, they then asked me, “A book? Just of your poems?” Another friend of mine even asked, “What kind of poems do you write? Do they rhyme?”

These questions reflect a lot about how most people don’t have a frame of reference for what it means to be a contemporary writer and how few people read poetry beyond what they were required to for school. I tried once to explain the nature of submitting to literary journals to my husband. He hears about it from me a lot, but that still doesn’t mean he quite understands the agonizing choice, every time, of putting another packet together to send to another journal, or what it means to get and re-submit in response to a nice/personalized rejection, etc. I ended up writing a blog about the best extended metaphor I could come up with, but still, if you haven’t done it, you’ll never totally understand.

We’re all taught poetry is supposed to look one way in school, and for most, that’s their only conception of poetry: it rhymes, has a strict form, maybe deals with things philosophically or language mumbo-jumbo-y. We’re also taught that the only other kind of poetry is what we write in our journals in response to a bad break-up, and this is also something we’ll “grow out of” and only comes from a “surfeit of feeling.”

A girl once came to me preparing for a poetry exam in her 11th grade English class. She had worksheets and lecture notes stating that her teacher believed what made a poem a poem was that it had a “turn,” a term which seemed to change meaning from class notes to handouts to worksheets.

She told me, “I hate poetry,” and I was sad for that. I could also understand that her confusion completely turned her off from anything at all poetry. Why is poetry instruction like this? Why are things “boiled down” to THIS is a poem BECAUSE? Many people have said to me, “I’d read your poetry, but I just don’t get poetry.”

Anyone not reading poetry past their school-age years is missing out on how contemporary poetry often doesn’t rhyme or have meter, that it sometimes uses swear words (gasp!), talks about filthy and lovely things, and is all-in-all greatly entertaining. These people don’t know about chapbooks(!), lovely little works digestible in just 30 minutes and loved forever. They don’t know there are even poetry books filled with poems by just one poet! We can all moan these things, but we poets have to stay gritty.

That’s it. Stay Gritty.

Stay Gritty can mean a lot here.

  • Stay resolved.
  • Stay writing and reading.
  • Stay engaged in a writer community.
  • Stay in love.

Especially that last one. Always that last one. Poetry needs love, especially when so many have never loved it at all. Maybe if we all love it enough, more people will? Doesn’t that sound nice?

4 thoughts on “The Nature of Grit

  1. I love this post, particularly what you’re saying about poetry in the classroom. I have to admit I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how much fun it would be to teach poetry to high schoolers, largely because I’ve been reading so much of it that I never, ever would have encountered in the classroom. (Why does it seem like the movement to use more contemporary texts in high schools hasn’t been expanded to include contemporary poetry? So much of the poetry I remember reading in school was a total snoozefest.) And I’ve been reading so much poetry for precisely the reasons you’ve outlined: its freedom and sense of adventure, its irreverence, its filth and beauty, its digestibility — all of these factors, plus I want to be a better poet. And it became so, so much easier for me to read poetry when I realized that no one will care if it turns out I don’t dig Famous Poet X or Important Poet Y. There are so many other poets that I do like, or that I might like if I read them, that it just doesn’t matter. Anthologies and the public library have been invaluable resources as I’ve become a more regular reader of poetry.

    Something I’d add is that one thing that might help mitigate the “I don’t get poetry” factor is reminding students (and grown-ass adults!) that automatically pausing after a line of poetry, rather than just going ahead and reading it as you might read prose, may have a lot to do with poetry seeming incomprehensible.

    Sorry for the lengthy comment, but you got my brain all riled up.

    1. I love your brain all riled up! I also dig that you are reading more poetry. You /can/ be a better poet! That comment about how to read is a helpful one too. I’m planning on bringing in some modern poetry into my class this year, and it’d be good to include some tips like that to ease these new readers into a less frightening experience!

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