Sunday, March 10, 2013

On Poetry (part 2)

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.]

Calvin read:
"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...


  1. In some cases, Andrew, it's the teachers or the parents who instill that love of poetry.

    I think some of our best modern poets are songwriters like Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan. Ferlinghetti ia another poet I like. The love for poetry is very subjective.

  2. When I was teaching, I used to do a poetry unit every April, and whenever I had a new group of kids who I thought would benefit from it. The end result was a "book" they put together of what they'd written and what they came across that they liked. They all started wanted to stick with the poetry of modern pop music but usually ended up broadening their horizons. Usually.

    And I can't hear "is this a dagger I see before me" in anything other than John Wayne's voice...

  3. Pop music is not poetry.
    Perhaps if it was taught correctly more people would enjoy it.

  4. It's sad that people just aren't taught how to read poetry these days. It's really simple once things are explained, but without it, I can see not only how people could fumble it up, but why it would hinder their enjoyment. I bet a lot more people would actually enjoy poetry if they fully understood how it "worked."

    I shudder to think that one day poetry might be a lost art.

  5. My impression of poetry is that it's a medium where the words are the point - that's where the beauty arises and that's where the emphasis is. That isn't to say the subject matter is irrelevant - just that it's secondary.

    So I've made it this far in life not paying that much attention to it. I've told my RL writing group that I'm about to jump in in hopes of improving my prose, but I haven't yet.

  6. Reminds me of my 10th grade English class when I desperately volunteered to read all of the big parts in Antigone and Julius Caesar so that the morons in my class wouldn't take all period painfully sounding out every speech.

    Personally, I'm not a fan of poetry, real structured rhyming poetry or the fake kind. It just doesn't ring true for me. I don't like anything where, as Rusty describes it above, the words are the point. I can read Shakespeare's plays because the story is the point and it just happens to be in verse because that's how things were still done. I wouldn't call Shakespeare's plays "poetry" in the modern sense though they are "poesis" in the ancient Greek sense. So I can enjoy his plays but I'm not very fond of his sonnets, which are poetry in the modern sense.

    Do you think there is objective merit to the modern idea of poetry? Enough so that people SHOULD learn to appreciate them? I don't, but I'd be interested in your opinion.

  7. I admit that I don't understand some poetry. But even today's twitter hungry generation can appreciate the paring down of words to create something so concise, nothing else can be cut from it.

    Consider the phrase "Loose lips sink ships." This could be a two-line poem. And it probably saved the lives of countless Americans during World War 2 because loose lips from family members could indeed end up sinking ships if they reported on where their sons or daughters were serving, etc. and the enemy got a hold of it.

    Another favorite:

    Under the wide and starry sky,
    Dig the grave and let me lie.
    Glad did I live and gladly die,
    And I laid me down with a will.
    This be the verse you grave for me:
    Here he lies where he longed to be;
    Home is the sailor, home from sea,
    And the hunter home from the hill.

    This is by Robert Louis Stevenson. So beautiful, and carved on his tombstone.

    There needs to be more poetry in the world! It's much easier to read a book of poems than it is to read a George R.R. Martin book.

    And yet, you also have not touched on the new novels that are written all in poetry. Consider the book "Triangles" if you've not heard of this style. It takes some getting used to.

    Or go visit Em-Musing. She always writes in this style. Every blog entry is a poem.

  8. You know what's awesomely meta about all of this?

    You wrote a post about how people don't read poetry. I wrote a poem in response about why poetry should rhyme and have structure, and explained it.

    You then wrote a post about people not reading poetry and linked to my post.

    AND NOBODY WENT TO READ IT. I'm surprised anyone is reading your posts about not reading poetry.

    Here's why I think poetry is important for writers, and readers, in condensed form.

    Ezra Pound, I'm told, wrote a sonnet a day for a year. Sonnets, if you know anything about the form of poetry, are incredibly hard to write: strict meter and rhyme schemes and topics.

    Ezra wrote one a day, for a year.

    Then he burned them.

    He said he did that because he had to learn how to use the tools of poetry before ignoring them, and I think there's a huge lesson there.

    Pound's "In A Station Of A Metro" is a beautiful poem. It doesn't rhyme and it's super short, but it works, and it works in part because his decision to ignore form has a purpose.

    Same with William Carlos Williams' "Red Wheelbarrow," a beautifully sparse poem.

    e e cummings uses rhyme and meter weirdly, almost seeming not to. His distinctive grammar and lack of capitalization have a reason. I named one of my books after a line from one of my favorite poems ever, one I can recite by heart:

    "Up So Down" the book was originally "Up So Floating Many Bells Down," and it comes from the opening lines:

    "Anyone lived in a pretty how town/
    With up so floating many bells down."

    It's a beautifully sad, happy poem about a couple falling in love and living their lives together, until:

    "one day anyone died i guess/ (and noone stooped to kiss his face)"

    And then the snows come and life goes on.

    The use of generic pronouns -- anyone, noone, etc. -- universalizes the poem so that everyone is anyone and everyone is noone, and the odd word choices and weird way of saying things ("with up so floating many bells down" "said their nevers they slept their dream")

    demonstrate the dreamlike quality that lives can have even if nobody notices it.

    So why learn poetry if you're a writer? That's like asking why learn music if you're a singer. Paul McCartney never learned to read music and did all right by himself, but he practiced for 10,000 hours before the Beatles got their first big hit.

  9. As for free verse, it has its places, but only when deliberately chosen and done for a reason. One of my favorite paintings ever is "modern art." I talked about it more here:

    7 years ago! My god! But anyway, it's just three large squares of color, hanging side by side. I'm not sure why I like it so much, except that in part I like it because of the simplicity of it, the genius.

    I think it's sad that people dismiss poetry, saying "I'm not a fan of poetry" or the like. That just means they've never given poetry a chance. I'm not a fan of nonfiction, in general -- but I read "Galileo's Daughter" and "Nathan's Nutmeg" and "Nothing Like It In The World" and "Longitude," and they're all brilliant nonfiction books. I'm not a fan of YA but I read Offutt's "Slipstream" and liked it.

    "I'm not a fan" means either "I've never seen any that I like," or "I'm not willing to even give it a chance," or more likely, both, with an emphasis on the latter.

    And why wouldn't a writer want to give a poem a chance? I can't figure out why. But it's sad.

    So, yeah, I think poetry is really really important, and I think that if as a writer you've never even TRIED to write a poem, you're not challenging yourself. But even if you don't want to write a poem, you should read them. Aloud, and listen to the language and feel the meter and think about the word choice.

    I'd start with "Anyone Lived In A Pretty How Town."

  10. @Briane: Ezra Pound was a champion. I love that story about the burning sonnets.

  11. I know exactly what you mean about people reading Shakespeare "wrong." I probably would have read them that way myself, but I was very fortunate to have a really great English teacher in high school. He took us by the hand and guided us through a lot of those plays so that they were very relatable. It was a great gift. :)

  12. D.G.: Well, everything I got about reading of any kind came from my teachers. My home was not a reading home.

    Dylan is great. But he's also an example of what I'm talking about in that people would not (generally) class him as a poet but as a musician. Pop music, in fact, for his day. Which is not to lessen his lyrics, but it is to show that the place where poetry is being written is very often in places related to music.

    M.J.: I wish I had time to cover poetry in the creative writing class I do, but I only get one guaranteed quarter with any given student, so I have to keep it kind of basic.

    Alex: If you take the lyrics out of the songs, you'll find that most of it is, even if it isn't very good.

    ABftS: Unfortunately, I don't think most teachers know how to read it any more than their students.

    Rusty: Ah! That's the next post!
    I'm not sure that I'd agree that the words are -the- point. The words are there to evoke meaning and/or emotion, so they're vitally important, much more so than in prose, because you have a limited space to work in.

    Sarah: Oh, yeah, I certainly do! And, I have to say, Tolkien thought so, too, and wrote quite a bit of it. A poem, well constructed, can convey so much more than simple prose, and seeing how it's done and what effect it creates can be tremendous for the writer.

    Michael: I haven't heard of that, but I'll look into it. Right now, in fact.

    Briane: I'm thinking, maybe, I should just have you write my next post in this series for me. You're continually one step ahead of me in all of this.
    I love cummings. I'd actually had him listed (as one of the poets I really like) but took him out because his poetry is so atypically structured, and I didn't want to have to try to field questions about whether or not his poetry is free verse.

    Knowing he burned all those poems hurts my heart. I love a lot of the stuff by G. M. Hopkins, but he burned the largest extent of his poetry (because he convinced himself it was sinful), which has always caused me pains to know that all of that was lost.

    Elizabeth: No burning sonnets! :P

    L.G.: I really appreciate Dead Poet's Society for highlighting how to go about reading Shakespeare.

  13. I read poetry - for fun. But then, I was taught how to read it, and like you said, that's half the battle. I'm still partial to Poe and Frost. And Alfred Noyes - a story tell AND a poet.

  14. S.L.: I don't read a lot of poetry anymore. Newer poetry doesn't thrill me, and I've read a way, way lot of the classics. I've never been overly interested in Poe's poetry, although I do like "Annabel Lee."
    I'm not familiar Noyes. At least, I'm not at this moment. Maybe the name is just not coming to mind.

  15. Your Shakespeare scene reminded me of when the school took us to The Old Vic in London to see Hamlet and I suddenly realised what it was all about. It saved Shakespeare for me. I have a copy of the Oxford Book of English Verse which I read cover to cover and still dip into now and again, I also have a complete John Masefield who's work I really enjoy. This is the kind of poetry which rings my bell, most of the modern stuff I have come across just doesn't do it.


  16. I had a similar experience to the one "Calvin" had. I took a poetry class in college, and I couldn't get my head around this one poet's work. He happened to be doing a reading one evening, and when I heard him read it aloud, it all made sense. It was magical.

  17. Jo: I have many different compilations, but I try to mostly stick to stuff prior to the 20th century. With some notable exceptions.

    Missed: Those are wonderful moments!

  18. I love Edna St. Vincent Milay. And William Blake...and someone mentioned Leonard him! There are more but I can't think of them right now..and about people reading Shakespear and other poetry used to drive me nuts in school! I always wanted to slap the book out of their hands.

  19. Eve: I know that feeling! Wanting to yell, "Stop! Just stop!"