I mentioned last time that people don't read poetry anymore, which is a true thing. Not that no one reads poetry, but, if you're not being made to do it for school or something, there's not a very strong likelihood that you're ever going to bother with poetry again. Less than 5% of you, in fact (and, maybe, by "you," I don't mean the "you" of you reading this blog, because that you reads more than other people, but the "you" of people out there isn't reading poetry, or reading much at all, for that matter). But... why? Why don't people read poetry anymore? It used to be that everyone read poetry. [And if, by chance, you want to read an exceptional bit of poetry, a piece (and a post) inspired by part 1 of this series (link above), just click here. Briane actually does a great job explaining his thoughts on why poetry requires structure, and he does it much more eloquently than I did. And he did it with a poem that he wrote in, basically, an afternoon, and that just blows me away, because poetry, writing it, is not my strong suit.]
I think the biggest reason people no longer read poetry is that people don't know how to read it. Any of it. And I think that the rise of free verse in the 20th century has played a big part in that. It has, in effect, untaught us on how to read poetry. Free verse tends to be fragmentary in that each line contains a complete thought, and you read it line by line. Now, let me be clear, this is not all free verse, and it certainly isn't the way free verse was when it was first becoming a "thing," back when actual poets were writing it (yeah, that sounds derisive of everyone else, but when you look at the free verse of, say, Walt Whitman, and, then, look at the free verse of the guy down the street, well, I'm sure you understand what I mean (but, then, maybe Whitman's poetry is a little too structured to really be free verse? At least, free verse as it's become)). I'll just throw in at this point that it's not free verse as it was that I don't like but free verse as it is. [Just like it's not "modern art" as it was when Picasso was doing it that I don't like, but modern art as it is now (as Elizabeth Twist said, "after a while it's just so many paint splatters on canvas.").]
Let me just illustrate the point with a story:
Way back when I was junior in high school, I was one day standing around outside of the cafeteria (which are now, inexplicably, called lunch rooms) talking to my English teacher. No, not about anything in particular. Yeah, I was that kid that liked to hang out and talk to my teachers when they weren't busy. Which wasn't often, so we took those opportunities whenever they were available. [At my school, this wasn't actually an uncommon behavior.] So we were chatting, and another guy walked up with his English text in his hand which meant there was a question coming. We were doing some Shakespeare play or other at the time, and the guy, whom I will call Calvin, said, "I don't understand any of this, can you explain it to me?"
Now, I just want to say that not understanding Shakespeare was a pretty common occurrence, even at my school, but I'd never really understood why people struggled with it so. My teacher, though, knew what the problem was, and he said, "Read to me the part you don't understand."
[I'm choosing a piece from Macbeth for this example 1. because it doesn't really matter what I use as an example (it's still valid) 2. because, by the time I'd graduated from high school, I'd already had to read Macbeth three or four times, so there is every likelihood that this was the play in question.]
"Is this a dagger which I see before me," [And, yes, I can't help reading that line without thinking of John Wayne.]
No problem without one, right? But he went on after a pause,
"The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee."
We're mostly okay, still, at this point, and the next one was okay, too.
"I have thee not, and yet I see thee still."
However, then, we get to
"Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible"
You have to understand, here, that, with each line, he's pausing and starting a new "sentence" every time he started reading a new line, so, as he went through
"To feeling as to sight? or art thou but"
"A dagger of the mind, a false creation,"
"Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?"
"I see thee yet, in form as palpable"
"As this which now I draw."
His face grew more and more confused the farther along he went, because, face it, "Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?" doesn't make much sense as a complete thought.
And I, because I was shocked at his reading, said, before I realized what I was doing, "You're reading it all wrong!" Calvin gave me a look that communicated something along the lines of "You're saying I can't read?" and said something like, "If I'm reading it, how can I be reading it wrong?"
My English teacher took the book from his hands and handed it to me and said, "What do you mean by that?"
"You have to follow the punctuation," I said, "not read it line by line."
"Go ahead and read it," my teacher said.
So I read:
"Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible to feeling as to sight? Or art thou but a dagger of the mind, a false creation, proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain? I see thee yet, in form as palpable as this which now I draw."
As I read, Calvin got a minor look of amazement on his face as he suddenly understood the meaning of the passage. My teacher took the book from my hands and said as he handed it back to Calvin, "You were reading it wrong."
Which is nothing against Calvin, because, like I said, evidently, this was a pretty common issue, and it was still an issue when I was in college majoring in English even amongst other English majors. And it continues to be a problem, a steadily increasing problem, as far as I can tell. Not just with Shakespeare but with any poetry at all. We've, culturally speaking, forgotten how to read poetry, and it keeps people from understanding it, so they can't derive any enjoyment from it.
But, wait! That's not exactly correct, because you can read almost all free verse poetry, especially stuff from the past half century or so, in this precise line by line manner. The problem, then, is that most free verse poetry just isn't that good because it's written by people that have no actual ability to write structured poetry, so it ends up being thought fragments on paper. Or, at best, pretty prose written in verse form. In the end, though, the option for the "common man" is to read poetry they don't understand or read poetry that just, on the whole, isn't any good. Stuck between the veritable rock and hard place, most people just don't read it at all.
The whole thing is kind of sad. Makes me sad. There's a lot of great poetry out there. Personally, I'm partial to Wordsworth, Shelley, the romantics in general, actually, Burns, Frost, even Tolkien (because he wrote more than a bit of poetry, himself). Well, I could go on, but that's not really the point. The point is that if more people knew how to read poetry, maybe more people would write poetry. Real poetry. Not just emotional vomit on a piece of paper. Or, maybe, if more people took the time to learn how to write actual, structured poetry, more people would read it.
Or, maybe, we should all just be satisfied with the poetry that pop music offers us? But I don't think so...