Do you folks enjoy reading poetry?
Because I (mostly) do not. For me, an appreciation of poetry is a mark of rather excessive cultivation. It’s something that no one possesses naturally. People who like poetry usually acquired that taste in school. The few who possessed anything like a natural sensitivity for poetry are often aspiring poets themselves. In short, I see enjoying poetry (at least in modern America) as something like being able to read Ancient Greek. Many people can do it somewhat well, and a few people can do it very well, but no one can just pick up the Iliad (in the original) and fall in love with it. And, usually, the reason people can do it is because they’ve made a career of it.
I think the sales figures support me on this. A top-selling literary novel in America can sell millions of copies. Even a top-selling short story collection like Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies can sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Is there any living poet (in the English language) who sells even tens of thousands of copies?** No one reads poetry. It’s as utterly dead as any art ever has been. More Americans make a living as blacksmiths than make a living writing poetry*** In any given year, the book that wins the Pulitzer Prize in poetry has usually sold about 500 copies before winning the award and won’t sell more than 1000 after winning it.****
But clearly, my essential thesis here is incorrect. Poetry once possessed great appeal to ordinary people. In some places, it still does.
For instance, I’ll often read in some old book about how some ordinary fellow has been stirred to the very depths of their soul by a book of poetry. For instance, Jane Austen is full of that kind of thing: people falling utterly in love with poetry. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam has a bit where the narrator is lounging in a field with a bottle of wine and a book of poems. Even as recently as the sixties, one reads about fairly ordinary people being enchanted by poetry. For instance, Jim Morrison loved Rimbaud and Alan Ginsberg was influential enough to spark a trial for obscenity. Moving further afield, a colleague of mine at the World Bank has told me that men in Colombia memorize copious amounts of poetry, and that to be able to recite is considering something of a mark of distinction.
We even have the evidence in our language. Poetry has a pre-eminent place in our culture as a metaphor. All agree that poetry is something sublime. It is a long stick that stirs the muddy depths of the soul. The poet is widely seen as a magical figure (just look at fantasy novels, they’re full of very elegant poets whose couplets often grant them magical powers). Any beautiful sentiment is “poetic”. People who exaggerate are exercising “poetic license”. Someone who is a little off-beat or insightful has the “soul of a poet”. A piece of prose writing that contains densely layered language, complex metaphors, and elevated diction is often called “a prose poem”.*
But either all that history is a lie, or we’ve somehow managed to lose something, because I think it is undeniable that even fairly literate people in America (including me) find most poetry (other than bits of, say, Kipling or Shakespeare) to be not at all pleasurable to read.
But I persevere, and keep reading trying to read it. Here and there, I’ve found things that I enjoy. Most often, it’s been long-form poetry. When poetry is wedded to some kind of narrative, I often find it eminently readable. For instance, I enjoyed Paradise Lost and Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol. I enjoyed The Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyam because I could perceive some kind of narrative unity in it even though it didn’t quite tell a story. But enjoying a narrative poem seems a little bit like cheating, since I’m not quite sure that I enjoy these poems for their poetics (rather than for their story).
When I’ve talked to people about poetry, they’ve recommended trying to bring analytical tools to the game: trying to use the intellect to unpick its meanings, rhythms, and rhetorical tools. This, however, strikes me as not being the right course of action. When people fall in love with a poem or a poet, they’re rarely described as being fascinated by the intricacy of its machinery….they’re described as being stirred…emotionally affected. For me, the path to those emotions is not through the intellect.
The primary tool in my quest to gain some kind of emotional reaction from poetry has been re-reading. Over the last six months or so, I’ve re-read Wallace Stevens’ first book, Harmonium, some five or six times. Each time, I’ve discovered in it some interesting poem that I’d ignored previously (though my favorite is still “Tea At The Palace Of Hoon”). But I think that part of this effect might just be a kind of Stockholm syndrome, though. Since I’ve shackled myself to this book, I’d feel pretty stupid if I didn’t start enjoying it, so maybe the sparks of pleasure are less a result of some poetical alchemy than a result of my mind’s own sense of the just rewards that I am entitled to after hours of hard work.
There was, however, one book of poetry that I enjoyed without rereading or analysis. This was Edward Lear’s Book Of Nonsense, which is a collection of absurd limericks. I was steered towards them by George Orwell’s essay “Nonsense Poetry”. But I am not sure that I am showing any sort of poetic sensibility in my ability enjoy a limerick like:
There was an Old Man of Peru,
Who never knew what he should do;
So he tore off his hair,
And behaved like a bear,
That intrinsic Old Man of Peru
What about you guys? What is your opinion of poetry? Have there been any poets or books of poems that you’ve enjoyed? Everyone, of course, has a few isolated poems that they enjoy, whether it’s “Casey At The Bat” or “The Charge Of The Light Brigade” or “The Raven” or “Ozymandias”. I am less interested in that and more interested in whether people find it possible to enjoy poetry in any sort of systematic way, like by cracking a book and reading some, rather than just having it percolate into you in dribs and drabs.
*Yes, I am sure that there is a more technical definition of what a “prose poem” is, but like everything poetry-related, no one knows that definition.
**According to Time, the best-selling book of poetry of the last decade (by far) is a collection of Rumi’s poetry. It has sold 250,000 copies in a decade. And that is the absolute tops for poetry (dude’s also been dead 800 years). The best-selling contemporary poet seems to be Elizabeth Alexander, who read at Barack Obama’s inauguration, with a 100,000 print run of her book coming out shortly after the inauguration (couldn’t find out how many copies sold, though).
***I just made that up, but doesn’t it sound true?
****I also made this up, but it too is a pretty true-sounding stat.