But Poetry Is Hard

So maybe you are a part of the silent majority that thinks that poetry is hard by it’s very nature. In order to really be poetry, it has to be a little inaccessible, right? I know plenty of people who agree with you. I think that some poetry is hard (The Waste Land is not for beginners, it’s true), but mostly because some authors are hard. All novels aren’t difficult to read just because of James Joyce and David Foster Wallace, right? Neither are all poems difficult just because some authors like to show off (ok, maybe they’re not showing off, but it does kind of seem that way sometimes).

One reason people, Americans in particular, find poetry difficult is because they come to it with, well, not wrong expectations exactly, but certainly unhelpful ones. We’re used to reading for information. In the Age of Google, we’re used to reading for instant information. Even when we read for relaxation, we expect to be able to quickly access and summarize the message of what we’ve read. Novels work really well with these sorts of expectations. Poetry, less so.

There are many motivations for writing a poem, but reading a poem is almost always an experiential exercise. If we come to a poem expecting to be able to skim it and “get” the meaning, we’re missing the whole point of the work as a poem. If you want to skim, hop over to CNN.com. You can no more skim a poem properly than you could “skim” your life — your first year of school, your first kiss, your wedding, the accumulation of Christmases, football games, and orthodontist appointments. Some things, you just have to live. And that’s how a poem works. Don’t rush.

If I were teaching a course on just poetry (as opposed to poetry, fiction, and research papers, which I am not teaching, but I have taught in the past), I would use Frances Mayes’ The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems. If you feel like you want to learn to appreciate poetry more, do yourself a favor and pick up her book. She really walks you through the process of understanding a poem (let’s call it “explication”). Here are a few suggestions taken from that book (and paraphrased) in case you’d like a little help. Not that you need it.

  1. Pay attention to the physical structure of the poem on the page. “Poems are written in lines. . . For now, let the punctuation mark at the end of [a] line guide you. A comma indicates a distinct pause; a period a full stop. If there is no punctuation mark where the line breaks, regard that break as a very slight pause — a half-comma — that emphasizes the last word on the line. Lines are not necessarily units of sense.”
  2. To fully appreciate a poem, you must read it more than once. (When I was a teacher, I told my students this all the time and they never believed me. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong, though.) “Read a poem once silently, the once aloud, just listening to teh sounds. With long poems, read at least a few sections aloud. Notice the action of the verbs.” Mayes is being easy on you. I say a minimum of three times is necessary. The first time to yourself and then the second time out loud are about meeting the poem. It isn’t until the third time through that you’re well-acquainted enough to realize what it’s really saying. Of course, it’s possible that I’m just a slow comprehender, I suppose.
  3. There are three basic types of poems. Knowing which category your poem is a part of may help you understand it better. Lyric poems are songlike and are usually told in first person; a narrative tells a story; and a dramatic poem demonstrates conflict, often in third person. There are more types than this, but this is a good basic start.
  4. What is your general reaction to the poem? How does it make you feel? Try to figure out what makes you feel that way. Are you responding to specific words, phrases, or images? “A poem usually has plural meanings; some of them are entirely personal to an individual reader.”
  5. Who is speaking? “Tone . . . shows the speaker’s emotion and sense of situation. Reading aloud will help you hear the speaker’s tone.”
  6. Note difficult sections. Reread them. Look up allusions to the Bible, myths, or other works of literature. Also look up the meanings of words you don’t know.
  7. “Don’t overinterpret. Meanings don’t hide behind every bush.” Paraphrasing may help you pin down exactly what’s being said in a poem, if not the emotion or craft or way it’s being expressed.
  8. Finally, “some people fear that analusis takes away from enjoyment. . . . Protracted analysis can wear you out, but good critical consideration is creative and rewarding.” Basically, it’s worth it to figure out what’s going on in a poem.

Look, just don’t work too hard if you’re just beginning poetry. The very most important thing to learn is to relax and play. Let it wash over you if you can’t do anything else, and keep reading. The more you read, the easier it will be.

If you’ve read this far, you deserve a poem. Here’s one of my favorites:

Denise Levertov

Stepping Westward
by Denise Levertov

What is green in me
darkens, muscadine.

If woman is inconstant,
good, I am faithful to

ebb and flow, I fall
in season and now

is a time of ripening.
If her part

is to be true,
a north star,

good, I hold steady
in the black sky

and vanish by day,
yet burn there

in blue or above
quilts of cloud.

There is no savor
more sweet, more salt

than to be glad to be
what, woman,

and who, myself,
I am, a shadow

that grows longer as the sun
moves, drawn out

on a thread of wonder.
If I bear burdens

they begin to be remembered
as gifts, goods, a basket

of bread that hurts
my shoulder but closes me

in fragrance. I can
eat as I go.

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3 thoughts on “But Poetry Is Hard

  1. OK, I don’t know if you wrote this post for me, but I like it! Very good points for appreciating poetry. I don’t know if I’m willing to work so hard to love something, but I may have to give it a try… thanks for sharing!

    1. Well, I didn’t write it AT you, but some of your comments reminded me of comments that I’ve heard from many, many, MANY other people (students, family, etc.). Some people hate poetry on general principle (I call them poetry atheists) and some people just don’t know what to do with it (poetry agnostics). Almost all of them feel like poetry is just something beyond them. But, as I’ve argued, or tried to, reading poetry is a skill just as easy as sewing or baking or playing the piano. Once you’ve learned to sew, you have a beautiful shirt or apron or curtain to show for it. Once a person learns to read poetry, a person is more aware of the beauty and humanity around himself or herself, and is consequently a better person that previously.

      Anyway, I’m glad you found it helpful. It’s ok if people don’t pursue poetry. I would just hate for someone to not try poetry because he or she thought it was too hard.

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