On Reading Poetry
I know many English and Literature majors who are serious readers. They love to read, but not poetry. I even know people who will read product labels rather than nothing, but would rather have the nothing over poetry, unless a product label happened to be handy. Now I also know a very few people who prefer poetry above all else, and a single individual who absolutely devours poetry, but struggles with all else. Until the Renaissance, the poet's art was admired above all else. The average educated man, having to choose between Pericles or Homer as their most admired person, would likely have chosen Homer by a wide margin. So why are things so different now?
We think political leaders are all crooks, and probably rightly so, know no poets by name, and instead revere sports figures who often behave badly and try to cheat the system with drugs or poor sportsmanship, complaining bitterly when caught. What have we done? How have we so seriously lost our way?
Thinking about the reading of poetry, the first place I started was in working my way through my own experience. My first clear recollection of having to deal with poetry seriously was in the seventh grade, now the middle of which we call “Middle” school. Being in the heart of New England, we were asked to memorise Robert Frost's “Stopping by Woods On a Snowing Evening.” I have no fond memories of that experience. I love the poem, but cold memorisation was a burden, nothing more. We were given no explanation or rationale. As a freshman in high school, I ran head long into Tennyson. The teacher informed us that we would be reading “The Idyll's of the King” as our main example of poetry, Scott's Waverly as the novel and Macbeth as the drama. I had already been introduced to a lot of the literature in the public library; the librarian was a former teacher, and on a mission to increase general literacy one student at a time. Bless her! At the ripe old age of thirteen I had already made my way through most of Shakespeare's masterpieces, enjoying them with a child's mind, so I was excited about having a guide through Macbeth! This too was a disappointment. The teacher kept telling us how important Macbeth was, but failed to show us why. She was in love with Scott and especially Waverly. I was not impressed, and to this day have never been a big fan of Scott. Before the Scott, I had read a few of George Eliot's major novels and some Conrad, loving both to this day they are two of my favorite novelists but Scott just left me cold, again the teacher just couldn't show me why I was suffering so much pain. My thought was that I didn't want to know that what we were reading was great stuff, but rather why it was great stuff. I can only conclude that the teacher really did not know.
By the time we got to the Tennyson, it was springtime, and the poetry just did not move me. We kept reading a little at a time. We kept reading. It went on like this through all of high school. I graduated from high school with the intent to major in literature, knowing I would have to tough my way through the poetry. Little did I know what awaited me! The first two quarters at University were tough, but I did well enough with a heavy course load. Since all freshmen, regardless of major, were compelled to take the survey courses, History and Literature, and where I was, even Engineering, we called these courses “The Gallop Through the Ages.” By the time we reached the spring quarter, we were going to cover a period in British literature from the romantics to Auden. There was going to be a very serious amount of poetry to wade through, some of it very difficult to understand.
The first day of this class devoted to mostly poetry, in walked the teacher, a severe looking old maid type with short “helmet” hair, horn rimmed glasses, and thick red lips. Anjolina Jolie type lips, heavily slathered in bright red lipstick. It looked more like a fresh wound on her face! She was not heavy, but the dark gray suits she always wore did not flatter her thick body. So why do I remember her so well? Because she started a process that would change my life. She was very clear in her diction and spoke very precisely. The first thing she asked was if any of us had read any of the poets listed in the syllabus. I raised my hand. She got a quizzical look on her face, then offered her sympathy. I was stunned!
She said, “We will be studying some of the greatest poets and poetry of any age, in any language. We will, however, not read a single poem. We will read no poetry!” She took a meaningful pause for effect, and then went on. “What we will be doing, is Experiencing these poems.” I was lost, with no idea what she was trying to do. The short version was very simple. Her idea of poetry was more along the lines of performance. She performed a poem or two then made each of us stand and take a stab at a part of a longer Wordsworth poem. We read aloud, with feeling and inflection. We tried to visualise the scene or vision the poet was writing about. It was important to insert ourselves into the mind of the poet and the experience of the poem. I could feel a whole new world opening before me. I knew reading a poem was not adequate, but before this time, no one had ever offered a suitable alternative.
I tried her idea. When reading alone, I would “perform” the poem to the best of my ability, aloud, using the poet as the imaginary audience. For shorter poems this technique worked really well. It worked less well with epic poetry, but with a little modification was made to do. I experienced a lot of poetry that quarter, and that experience did change my life. I finally had learned an essential factor of how one approaches poetry, and the rewards were very rich.
There are now a few books out on how to read a poem, and they contain many useful insights. Some even mention the idea of reading aloud, but none really focus on the poem as potential performance art. It is also a very good idea to read epic poetry aloud as well, and this helps in grasping the true nature of the work. When I think of epic, I think of the work of Homer, Virgil's Aeneid, Dante's Divine Comedy, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Milton's Paradise Lost. In the days of Homer the idea of verse was very important because for generations, perhaps hundreds of years the stories were communicated by oral tradition; nothing was written down. Rhyme, meter and the music of the language was important for multiple reasons. Verse was considered the language of the Gods and the music in the language added to the glory of the action. There was, of course, a far more practical reason for the rhyme and musical aspects of the verse. It was a form of insurance that the story would not be changed as it was told. A change in rhyme or rhythm would be immediately obvious, lending credence to the idea that a large verse epic could be handed down from generation to generation with little or possible no degradation. Thus it was with Homer's epics.
Even the most didactic of verse is a vision in print. The poet presents us with a vision and implicitly expects us to “experience” the vision. Experience, not interpret or understand, these things are up to us, only if we wish. Most people seem to be put off by poetry because they have difficulty understanding it. Consider this. When we read a novel, depending upon the novel, we may only think we really understand it, but we do understand part of it, even only with a single reading. For some reason, we think we should understand a poem with the same ease. How have we developed such a preposterous expectation. Should I blame society, or educational institutions, or the educators? Who can say?
It takes many readings, even of the simplest poem, to “experience” the poet's vision. Typically, we don't understand the concept of a poem. Because most of our reading experience is confined to the newspaper or magazines, that tends to set expectations. Everything we read is expected to be simple and clearly written. While this might be an accurate expectation in the right context, it is absolutely false in the context of poetry.
Let's look at how a poem is often written, or better, let's use the genesis of a single great poem as an example. When Yeats wrote “The Second Coming”, he started as he usually did. He just wrote it out, in prose, until he felt he had captured the vision. Then he just kept honing it; dividing the lines for rhythm and feel; replacing three words with one; removing mere explanation to enhance with suggestion instead. It took months. He would set it aside to “rest” and then return to it. Much of his work was developed the same way, hundreds of readings and scores of revisions, until at last, the vision was attained. Today's world leaves us too impatient to appreciate poetry. In truth, today's world leaves us too impatient to appreciate much of anything. Art, poetry, scripture, great fiction, good movies, elevating music, inspiring drama, all require repetition to achieve appreciation.
I will never forget my first serious art class. After we had met for several weeks, we completed an exercise and the instructor reviewed our work. She then commented, “Do this about a hundred more times, and you will finally start getting the hang of it!” Nothing comes quickly, in spite of our expectations. Even with short poems (less than 50 lines), I find myself seeing new things after years of readings. As we mature, our appreciation of a work also matures.
Is it essential that everything we see be part of the artist's design? Certainly not! No more than we lose value if we do not experience or appreciate ALL of the artist's design. I have read Pride and Prejudice countless times, and find something new to enjoy every time. Certain poems I have read a score of times every year for decades with ever growing admiration for the work.
So, my advice is to avoid “reading” poetry at all costs, such a thing merely diminishes the reader and the work. I would, however, strongly encourage you to take advantage of the Internet and begin to “experience” poetry at once!
* Keith Gilbert works as an associate of GM America and writes from West Bloomfield, MI, USA
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