If you have read anything at all on my site, or just my books finished pages, you will have noticed that I read a nice variety of books. There is a large amount of literary fiction as well as theological/philosophical works in my reading diet. Last year though I began to read some poetry. I hadn’t really read much since my undergraduate years. And even then it was mostly the normal major American and British poets. I always enjoyed reading those assignments and looked forward to the papers/discussions that would follow them. But once I was past those courses I simply turned my attention to more easily accessible writing.
I made the mistake of believing that poetry was some kind of elite club which only brainy academics or hippie’s with a deep love of nature could appreciate. That changed last year for two reasons. The first practical the second more haphazard.
First, I love Jorge Luis Borges. He’s my favorite writer and so every time I go book shopping if I see something of his I buy it (even if I already own a copy). Last year I stumbled upon The Sonnets and Poems of the Night.* I had never seen either of these and I had never read any of his poems. I couldn’t resist diving into them. I quickly read the two volumes and loved them. This lead to my second reason for my newfound attitude toward poetry.
Secondly, I firmly believe that the great writers have a dialogue that links them. Sometime it’s an argument sometimes it’s mutual respect for the work, and sometime it’s a competition.** I realized since poets were the first writers they began the dialogue. Borges’ work is linked with Whitman and the Germanic expressionists. Milton’s work is his commentary on Dante’s and Spenser’s. Wordsworth had to deal with Milton. In America, Whitman had to overcome the old world heritage by blowing it up and creating something new, something American. During the rise of the novel the dialogue moved from the poets to the novelists. But it continued nonetheless. I realized if I was to fully understand and appreciate the great works of the modern and postmodern era knowledge of the poetry that was behind it was necessary.
Stumbling across Borges’ poems and realizing the dialogue in literature began with the poets has forced me to acknowledge my ignorance of poetry. It has forced me to read more poetry and consequently buy more poetry. I began by buying the poets Borges read, mostly Germans from the 19th century, but have since added several classics, both American and English. I realize I need to acquire French and Italian poets, but I’m not there yet.
So what does my new-found appreciation for poetry have to do with you?
First, I can’t think of single book lover/reader I’ve met who read poetry (even a book a year). This could mean I’ve lived in a vastly different area than you have, but after seeing the facial expressions at the inauguration I doubt I’m wrong on this one.
Secondly, any “reader” needs to be well read. As I have lamented before, most people like to think they’re readers and love books, but truthfully they’re genre readers or well-educated (college-level) but haven’t read more than 10 books in a year since they graduated. A real reader seeks out topics and genres they are unfamiliar with to improve their knowledge, their love of literature, and their abilities as a reader.
Thirdly, until the mid 20th century poetry was a serious deal. For most of the history of the written word creative work was done exclusively in poetry. Excluding poetry from your reading is excluding the work of countless generations who shared their experiences through poems. They attempted to communicate deep truths of their life to others and by ignoring this we ignore part of our own existence.
Finally, by ignoring poetry we are able to claim it’s too dense, too complicated, or doesn’t rhyme (really this just means it’s not what I’m used to). These facile excuses are dismissed if someone applies them to Joyce (much harder than most poets) or when we try out an author we have never previously read. Instead most readers welcome challenges.
I see poetry as the great challenge. You can’t read it too quickly or you’ll miss out on the meaning and imagery. You can’t read it lazily because it requires you to engage with the text and consider grammatical or syntactical issues. It pushes language in ways that no author, except maybe Joyce, ever has. Poetry forces you to examine yourself as you read it. It causes us to consider our emotions and what we believe about life.
You cannot consider yourself to be a reader without it. It’s the pinnacle of human expression. It’s mankind’s greatest attempt at true creativity with words.*** I realize this sounds all high and mighty. It paints a lofty plane for us to conquer and a deep fountain from which to imbibe, but it’s not an easy task. Most of us aren’t use to reading poetry and it requires a different set of skills, new eyes to see what’s there. But the rewards are there. The new insights, the fresh perspectives are there.
If you’re unsure of where to start I’m not very helpful. I’d say pick a poet you have heard of: Blake, Milton,
Shakespeare, Whitman, Wordsworth, Browning, etc., and start reading. A very helpful little book which I’m currently reading is Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.
Good luck as you attempt to expand your reading experience. As always if you have any suggestions, comments, or questions please leave them. I love engaging with other readers and this topic is one that brings up lots of issues.
*Interestingly enough The Sonnets edition I have is an editors edition not meant for sale, but luckily used bookstores will sell anything.
**For the most part this competition ended with Joyce’s Ulysses, but the dialogue has continued in other areas.
***Music is probably the greatest pure creative act.