A dear friend of mine recently commented that she didn’t usually “get” poetry. I’ve been pondering that statement from several angles.
I’ve known more than one person who has said either that they didn’t understand poetry or that they didn’t like it. I’ve loved poetry from when I was a very small child, and while there was, and always has been, some poetry that I don’t like or don’t understand, I find most of it enjoyable, one way or another.
So why, I ask myself, would anyone who is reasonably intelligent and reasonably literate not understand poetry or see it as the broccoli of the literary world? I’ve come up with some ideas.
First, it’s possible that these people haven’t met the right poetry. I read widely; I like Ogden Nash and Shakespeare and Gerard Manley Hopkins and Christina Rosetti and Mother Goose. I like sonnets and nonsense and love poetry and nature poetry. I don’t like everything I read, and some of it I don’t re-read – but sometimes even stuff I didn’t think I liked sticks with me, and so I give it a second chance.
Second, I think many people get a bad introduction to poetry. They meet it at school, and they have to memorize it and dissect it and analyse it before they get a chance to sit down and have a coffee with it. Tell me how many potential friendships could survive that kind of a start! My introduction to poetry was my mother either reading or reciting it to me. It was clear she enjoyed it, and her enjoyment became mine.
Third, there’s also some really, really bad poetry out there, and some rather difficult stuff. If you were to start with Robert Browning, for example, who happily twists his sentences into corkscrews to make the metre and rhyme work, you could be forgiven for being confused and even repelled. Emily Dickinson’s eccentric rhymes and unique worldview are probably an acquired taste. (Dickinson never wanted her poetry to be published, and indeed requested that it be burned upon her death. You can, if you wish, sing any Dickinson poem to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”. It gives a new angle on “Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me. / The carriage held but just ourselves / and immortality.”)
Finally, I believe that poetry, as any other art, is a way to communicate. Whether it’s Shakespeare’s cautionary tale on over-thinking and indecision (Hamlet) or Nash’s “Reflections on Ice-breaking” (Candy / is dandy / But liquor / is quicker.), poetry is a way for one person to speak to another.
Sometimes the speaker gets so wound up in what they’re saying that the meaning is lost on her or his audience. An inexperienced or uncertain reader may be put off poetry by an early experience with such a poem. (On the other hand, nobody really knows what the lyrics to “American Pie” mean. It doesn’t stop millions of people from enjoying the song.)
This is like being put off movies because you started with “Emma” or “The Fountain” or “Die Hard” and didn’t like what you watched. My advice is to do with poetry what you would do with movies – try something different. The advantage is that you seldom have to spend two hours with a poem to discover you don’t – or do – like it.
If you’ve been intimidated by a poem, or a poet, and want to try again, anthologies are a good place to start. They’re essentially samplers of many different poets. One of my favourites is the Golden Book of Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer. Another is An Anthology of Verse edited by Roberta Charlesworth and Dennis Lee. (Yes, “Alligator Pie” Dennis Lee!)