People are afraid of poetry. Too often I hear that it is “impenetrable” and “boring”. I confess, and maybe from a snobbish position, that this kind of rhetoric, in relation to poetry, drives me spare! So, pull yourselves together and let’s have a look at how we can best enjoy this beautiful art form.
Start, as simple as it may well sound, by reading the sentences! There’s a great tendency in an art form that is written in lines to want to read lines. But lines, in a great many instances, don’t make sense and don’t contain complete meanings. If we stop at the end of every line as if we just read a full statement, and we all do at a certain early stage of reading, we’ll never get anything out of the poem because we will not have understood what it is that’s being said. Poems have this in conjunction with everything else that is written in English: their basic unit of meaning is the sentence, and we shouldn’t ignore that fact.
Obey all punctuation! If there is no punctuation at the end of the line, we want to keep that pause as the eyes travel back, and we don’t want to drop our voice as if the sentence is over. Keep it going and flowing as much as possible. Now, if there’s a comma, we want to pause as if there’s a comma, but not as if there’s a period. And if there’s a period or a semicolon or a question mark, something that approximates a full stop, we want to do a full stop there and understand that we came to the end of some kind of unit of meaning. That’s how the poet understood it when she wrote it and we should do that as well.
Read the poem more than once! Reading is rereading, and that’s especially true with poems. It’s really hard to go back and reread War and Peace right after you finish it, or Moby Dick, any of those chest-breaking tomes. But we can do it with a sonnet or any kind of shorter poem. For a lot of people, if you read it aloud the first time, you can do it silently the second time, because now you’ve got a handle on it.
Poetry doesn’t have to be obscure. One of poetry’s hang-ups is that it’s not only obscure, but it’s obscure on purpose. But when it is obscure to us, it’s often because we don’t get the cultural references. Traditional English poetry would’ve been written for a fairly small segment of the population who all kind of knew the same thing, so it’s not only in a semi-foreign language but it’s also a foreign set of references. I don’t recommend that people go out and start their poetic experience with John Milton or Alexander Pope. Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes and Dirty Beasts is as good a start as any.
“The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers. She whips a pistol from her knickers” – Little Red Riding Hood, Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl – for those who remember. Now that’s poetry.
The most important thing to understand in verse is that it is, first and foremost, a sort of experiment in and with language. How can I talk about this thing, how can I say this in a way that is interesting and unique, that will convey my meaning but do more than just convey my meaning? I think of poetry as a laboratory. What great poets largely have in mind, the thing that makes them hang around, is that they speak to our imagination in some way. They don’t speak to everybody’s. This isn’t selling car wax or something. But they will find an audience and there will be people who go, “Oh, yeah, I get that. That resonates with me.” It will be one imagination speaking to another. It’s not just about words: it’s about the way that imagination expresses itself, and the way another imagination receives that message.
I’ll leave you with a verse from one of my favourite poems: Eloisa to Abelard by Alexander Pope.
“How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d”
This has been Allix’s Thursday Thoughts for this here Thursday! Good night and good luck.