After spending the last academic year as a module tutor on my department’s final year ‘Modern Literature’ course, this semester I’ve returned to where I first began – tutoring and lecturing poetry and poetic theory to lots of engaged and enthusiastic first year undergraduates.
It’s always such a pleasure to be a part of this course. You get to witness your students develop from prose enthusiasts who are often fearful or indifferent to poetry at the start of the semester to passionate and sophisticated advocates of verse by the time it comes to the summer. Many seem to arrive at the first seminar already certain that they don’t really like poetry and certainly don’t understand it. I understand this feeling. To a small extent I felt it myself when I was just starting out as a student. As an evangelical convert it’s therefore a wonderful, if challenging, task to make them change their minds.
The shift from fear and indifference to appreciation and understanding often takes place when they begin to re-assess their whole idea of what it means to ‘understand’ poetry in the first place. For this reason I want to set out some of the common things that can initially hold back a new reader, and then I’ll talk about some ways around these issues.
So, first up, the challenges:
PART ONE: DIET PROSE
There’s a tendency – sometimes first acquired during GSCE and A-Level study – to try to read and assess poetry in exactly the same way as prose. New, uncertain (and even complacent) readers begin a poem with a checklist of what to look out for. They need a theme or story, a clear narrative, a beginning, middle, and an end. They need to know what the poem is ‘about’, what the poet is trying to tell them, and even how that relates to the poet’s life itself. And then they get frustrated when they can’t find one definitive answer to any of these questions. They know what alliteration, onomatopoeia, and sibilance mean, but not how and why they mean – their place in the on-going and usually unresolved drama between the form and the content of the poem.
Read in this way, poetry is frustrating, alienating, and unsatisfying. It’s like Diet Prose – it’s sort of got the same ingredients – language – just less of it. It sort of tastes the same, just with less of the rich narrative and juicy descriptive sections. It sort of fills you up, but you finish sooner than expected, and are left with blank space where there should be more. It’s like being given a Ryvita, or one of those awful rice cakes, when all you want is a big bag of chips.
For these same reasons poetry is also often perceived as being less weighty and nourishing, more decorative. It’s appropriate only for weddings and funerals, but has little value outside of that (save revealing the horrors of the First World War – a subject which seems to break the mould). In one lecture I conducted a quick, ad-hoc survey on whether the students felt poetry was more like bread or cake – whether they thought it was necessary in society or merely something cooked up and enjoyed on special occasions. Nearly everyone (apart from the other staff and a few brave souls) said that it was cake. Now I know I’m mixing my metaphors here – first poetry is diet prose and now its opulent and indulgent cake. It’s nearly dinnertime as I write this, and it shows. But this juxtaposition between the sparse and the indulgent also sums up how people often perceive poetry. It’s both lacking and unnecessarily opulent. It’s an indulgence and an empty plate.
I’ve outlined some of the problems that students and readers face when they first encounter poetry as early researchers and critics, but this post isn’t about the failure of readers. It’s about their development and eventual success. So in the next part I’m going to talk about how these challenges can be addressed.
PART TWO: THE TURNAROUND
In the first part of this post I discussed the issues that sometimes hold a reader back from loving poetry. Now I’m going to look at how and when this starts to change.
At different times across the semester you see these little light bulb moments occur when a student stops reading poetry as prose and reads it as poetry; when they finally understand why a poet might write an elegy when they could have simply mourned the dead, or why they chose to address a political issue within the formal confines of a poem when they could have written as much as they liked on the subject elsewhere. They discover the power of poetry – they see how it makes the world strange, and reminds us of its existing strangeness. They begin to note how it invites and defies conclusion and definition, and attests to the fact that every word, line ending, punctuation mark, rhyme and non-rhyme matters. Earlier I called poetry Diet Prose, but in reality poetry is the opposite of diet. It is concentrated language. It is a nourishment of ideas.
There are a few poems that never fail to act as a catalyst for this moment of realisation (even when the student in question doesn’t even like it that much). Often they are modern or contemporary poems, or pieces whose overt and deliberate strangeness instantly alert the students that something different is going on. When students are set ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, for example, or ‘Anecdote of the Jar’, they often come to the seminar thinking that they’ve got nothing to say, but then leave amazed that ‘so much depends’ on just a few words on the page, ordered in a certain way.
If you look at the poem itself, at first glance it seems like very little is going on:
Left with almost a whole page of blank space, a reader might feel short changed by William Carlos Williams – particularly after he’s assured us so emphatically that ‘so much depends’ on this everyday, altogether unremarkable object. Expecting the same things from the poet as we would from the novelist we are left desiring an explanation as to why we should ‘depend’ on this mundane wheelbarrow for entertainment, enrichment, or truth. Things start to change though, when we consider what this poem is saying about poetry, reading, and beauty itself. Prose doesn’t always need to remind us of its self-consciousness and anxiety, but poetry does. If you bumped into poetry on the street you’d find yourself embroiled in a twenty-minute conversation about its ailments, or its recent success at work. Or else you’d stand patiently and mutely as it rattled on about its foray into veganism or bikram yoga, trying not to seem rude when it implored you to look at its body to see if you could see the difference. It’s like Woody Allen’s character in every one of his films: neurotic, narcissistic, and self-absorbed. But unlike these men it’s all the more interesting and appealing for it.
Poetry’s self-consciousness and reflexivity makes it great, and ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ is a prime example of this greatness. When a student realises this, and starts to see how the poem is commenting on tradition, form, and innovation, they come away shocked that such a small poem can say so much. Things such as: how poetry can celebrate the ordinary and everyday rather than the ‘Grecian Urn’ or other more traditionally ‘poetic’ objects. Or how it plays with the subjectivity versus the objectivity of the poetic voice. Or how it challenges the reader’s need for meaning – we sometimes expect to find a higher truth or moral in our poetry, and when that’s denied to us it forces us to question the role that we play in the poetic process. Similarly when readers see the part that form plays in this dynamic – how ‘so much depends’ on the line breaks and the way they lead us on in anticipation of the elusive answer to the poem – then that idea of poetry as something concentrated and self-conscious really shines through.
Other poems, like David Wheatley’s ‘Sonnet’, show readers that rules are made to be broken. They demonstrate how forms like the sonnet, which can seem so stilted and formulaic at first glance, in fact offer the perfect structure for innovation. Sometimes a poem like ‘Night, Death, Mississippi’ by Robert Hayden shows them the power and tendency of poetry to face difficult and distressing subject matter, and to do in in such a way that your sympathy and ethical judgement become uncomfortably intertwined. A poem like ‘The Heartless Art’ by Tony Harrison shows them how seemingly un-poetic topics and language are still the stuff of great literature; how these elements actually make the poem full of heart rather than ‘heartless’. Sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Carol Ann Duffy empower readers to see that poetry can re-write literary and social traditions and norms. They show how humour can be a tool of defiance and intellectual prowess. Pieces by Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, and more recently, Danez Smith, show them how the ‘cage’ of poetic form can sometimes make the poet sing louder, and more defiantly, than they ever could in prose.
These are just a few examples of pieces that inspire and ignite the imagination. There are so many more, and often it is the ‘old’ poems, read in new ways, which start this process off. This is particularly the case when students start to realise how poetry is self-conscious of its own artifice, creation, and posterity. Looking at Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, Sidney’s ‘Loving in Truth’, and so many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, it’s wonderful to see how the gaze of the poem turns inwards as well as outwards. Every poem is in a way an ‘Ars Poetica’, pointing the reader to the ways that its form and content come together and then fall apart. They are all concerned with how each word contains both a poetic meaning and an external one, and how this doubleness comes to affect and shape the finished piece. Poems are finished and highly crafted sculptures, but they give you glimpses of their rough stone.
Speaking of the ‘rough stone’ of poetry, another way to ignite the imagination is to learn about how poems are drafted, even to see examples of these in library archives and online resources. At Leeds we are lucky to have a wonderful poetry archive, and it’s great to take students up to see and handle the notebooks of some of the poets they study in their degree. In regards to creative writing, doing this also acts as a remedy to the distorted notion of ‘inspiration’. What I mean by that is the misconception held by some that poems just pop into a poet’s head, are written down on the spot, and are immediately finished, no drafting or re-drafting needed. Whilst this might happen sometimes (lucky poets!), for the most part a poem is a process of crafting and revision, and it’s good to show students this. It brings the poem alive – it reminds the reader how it is an organic, changing thing, often with its roots in ideas and language not previously imagined.
When I describe what poetry ‘does’, I like to repeat Emily Dickinson’s words: ‘Tell all the truth, but tell it slant’. This, to me, is why poetry is so wonderful. But I wanted to end with these wonderful lines from Jane Campion’s biopic Bright Star, which depicts the love affair of John Keats and Fanny Brawne. Describing poetry, and how it should be read, Keats provides this wonderful metaphor:
‘The point of diving in a lake is not to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out … Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.’
My point exactly.