Yesterday at work I got an interesting message on Twitter, from a follower asking how to be more appreciative of poetry. I didn’t respond to it immediately, and honestly when I did, the 140 character limit didn’t leave me with what I felt was a satisfactory answer. So I’ll at least try to do some justice and tackle it here.
I think I should start, at least, with a little information about how I got into poetry. At this point I should admit that I never, ever, enjoyed poetry – or English Literature for that matter, while I was at school. I have dull memories of slogging through Romeo & Juliet when I was thirteen; enduring terrible delivery of elaborate soliloquies that my peers did not have the verbal skill to deliver aptly, nor I, with the wit to understand what was meant. I also remember reading the War Poets – Wilfred Owen mostly, Siegfried Sassoon more as a footnote that ‘there were others’. Again, at that time I was ill-equipped to understand what was meant when ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ was read aloud. Again, I could understand what they meant, but it was not a true comprehension.
My point is this – as a child at school, even through to the end of my teenage years, I did not understand poetry. I could read the words, but I lacked the wider life experience to be able to relate to any of the words I was reciting. The work of Wilfred Owen means more to those who have experienced war, while Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers has greater meaning for those who have experienced love and heartbreak.
I should pause to admit even that when I was studying English for three years as an undergraduate, I didn’t truly appreciate poetry either. Usually, a week of poetry reading would be met with relief as it meant less to read, and to give a better example for those know me, when I first read Beowulf at university, I had little love for what is now one of my favourite works of literature. That change for the better only occurred once I had graduated, and began my own work as a writer.
At the end of the day, I think we can only begin to appreciate poetry when we approach it outside of any compulsion. At school we’re forced to sit through adults telling us to appreciate it, but it strikes me as utterly contrary to the nature of poetry itself (being a medium where feeling and aesthetic takes priority over form) to expect people to enjoy it by gathering them in a room and forcing them to do so. I focus on school here, because I feel it very much gives a bad introduction for most to poetry, and in doing so, it’s a hangover that lasts for a long time – if not their life.
To move to more of a concrete answer on how to appreciate poetry, the first thing to do with any poem is approach with an open mind. Read slowly. Read it out loud. Listen out for turns of phrase, and don’t worry if meaning eludes you – sometimes the whole point of a line is simple the beauty of the sounds of various words, not their meaning. I cannot stress enough though, that there is nothing wrong about not understanding a poetry for the first time. A good poem is like a lyrical puzzle (particularly modern forms), whereby the poet usually will include some clues that once you identify, will solve the puzzle. The puzzle itself is not so much trying to make you, the reader, not understand. Instead, the puzzle is how to express something in a way that has never been said before? To quote Wordsworth in his introduction to Lyrical Ballads, “All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”, and it is that expression, with the desire to say it in a new way, that creates poetry. With that understanding, we can at least hope to in turn understand what the poet was feeling.
Now, I should ground ourselves her and say that not all poetry is complicated puzzles. Far from it – people say Shakespeare is poetic because of the iambic pentameter he uses – a form which many of us can naturally slip into. When we come up with this really conceited idea of poetry that is obscure, edgy, and a struggle to read, we’re getting sucked into a trap, where modern poetry can make us perceive all poetry to be difficult and obscure. Not the case.
Even from having a little listen, you can hear how this is a story with lyrical turns in it, rather than an exercise in obscurity. Now, Saxon verse does have some puzzles in it – kennings – hence, when you hear “whale-road”, that is a little riddle if you will, for the ocean. As an aside, this is why I love Anglo-Saxon, Eddaic, and Skaldic verse, as it does some very clever things, while still keeping a larger story to it.
If you’re feeling brave (and can stand the slightly indulgent performance) here’s the opening lines of Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon.
Now, I’m conscious that I’ve been at this for a while, and also that I could easily talk about poetry for longer, but I’ll leave you by reiterating that poetry is a form of literature that places importance on sounding beautiful rather than strict form. It has rules, and it breaks those rules. Sometimes it’s difficult, sometimes we don’t get that poem. And that’s okay, not every single poem is for everyone. The point I wanted to make all along is that poetry is organic, it’s about sound and feeling, not trying to confuse or withhold meaning.
I’ll leave you now with the closing lines of Tennyson’s poem, ‘Ulysses’. I think these couple of lines say more about the human spirit, and in better fashion, than anything else I’ve read.
Come, my friends,‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.Push off, and sitting well in order smiteThe sounding furrows; for my purpose holdsTo sail beyond the sunset, and the bathsOf all the western stars, until I die.It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’We are not now that strength which in old daysMoved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;One equal temper of heroic hearts,Made weak by time and fate, but strong in willTo strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.