People often tell me they avoid reading poetry because they don’t understand it, but I am writing to persuade you that poetry is a pleasure—a graspable, relatable, and often amusing pleasure. Stephanie Burt, author of the enticingly titled book, Don’t Read Poetry, presents a similar argument. Here, I will share my own perspectives, followed by Burt’s perspectives, in the hope you will be inspired to identify as a poetry lover, or at least, an occasional poetry dabbler.
If you’re a seeker of mysteries, poetry is for you. All of us are seekers of something, and often that something is intangible (love, purpose, wisdom, etc). Poets can touch upon personal epiphany and meaning in subtle ways, even though they may not claim to have mystical or transcendental sensibilities. The realm of poetry is one of whims, visions, and revelations; it need not be inhibited by a logical course of events, or by earthly rules. It could be said that this inclination contributes to so-called “obscurity” in poetry, but just as the nature of perception is ambiguous, poetry only reflects the ambiguity of human perception and the uncertainties of existence.
If you’re a social activist (or a private rebel), poetry is for you. Perhaps more so than novels, nonfiction, or other long form writing, poetry is uniquely positioned to be self-aware and subversive because poetry makes language—and its derivative, rigid, colonialist aspects—a central focus. By rejecting, or simply underscoring, built-in assumptions and structures within English, poetry can recognize societal constructs and how words can be used in resistance. If there is reason to defy punctuation, syntax, and standard formatting, the poem is receptive to that. But the poem is also receptive to the cultural/social impact each word carries with it, in its etymology, implications, and multiple meanings.
In fact, whoever you are, poetry is for you. Author Stephanie Burt would be disappointed in me if I didn’t tell you there are endless options and purposes offered by poetry, outside of mystery seeking or societal resistance. Burt writes:
I started to write this book because I got frustrated with books that told their readers, and teachers who told their students, that poetry was one thing. Sometimes the readers and the students learned to love that thing; sometimes they tried it and decided that this one thing—this major poet (say, Robert Frost), this reason to read (say, mystery and the sacred), or this style of poetry (say, modern conversational free verse)—wasn’t for them. That’s like hearing Beethoven, or hearing Kendrick Lamar, and not getting into it and then deciding you don’t like music (7).
Burt emphasizes poetry’s category-defying possibilities and discordant voices by revealing the incredible breadth and scope of poems—ranging from ancient to contemporary—all with disparate effects and intentions. Interestingly, Burt arranges what she refers to as a “partial map” of poetry into six different reasons for reading it (8, 13).
There are pitfalls to advising the reader how they “should” approach a poem. As Burt notes, “I am here to say that anyone who tells you that they know how to read poetry, or what poetry really is, or what it is good for, or why you should read it, in general, is already getting it wrong” (7). Nonetheless, as a poetry lover myself (ever since it rescued me from school’s five paragraph essays and the exclusionary British/American “canon”), I will propose a couple of very loose tips for potential poetry lovers. Follow at your own peril, or disregard and destroy as needed:
1) Aim to enjoy, above all else. Relish a poem as you would a painting or a song. Recognize beauty or emotion if/when it affects you, and take in the sounds of the line and the words. Poetry doesn’t have to be an equation or puzzle to be solved (unless you want it to be). If the poem doesn’t speak to you, find another poem, or another poet, more aligned with your interests and style.
2) Look through a lens of relative subjectivity. Poems may not always make sense to you, or they may not make sense objectively at all. Instead of becoming exasperated, consider an unclear poem to be a glimpse through a foggy window at the half-seen experiences/experiments/snapshots of others.
In the upcoming weeks, I will share a few of my favorite poems here, in honor of National Poetry Month. I may not be able to show you the luminous poem that makes you a poetry lover, but I am willing to bet there’s one out there that can transform you into exactly that.
Burt, Stephanie. Don’t Read Poetry. Basic Books, 2019.