If there’s one word in the literary cannon that induces more groans than not it’s POETRY. It’s easy to understand why—most people’s exposure to poetry extends no further than junior high, Robert Frost, and that damned fork in the road. And that’s okay. I’d venture to say that most people, when they’re looking their next read, don’t pick up a collection of poetry. There’s an undeserved stigma attached to poetry, which maybe comes from our junior high days—boring, verbose, flowery, and (worst of all) interpretive.
“…a poet should disrupt the expectations of language…”
There’s something enjoyable about reading a book with a linear narrative, that you ruminate on after the fact. Poetry, however, is the opposite: each page presents an individual story that, more often than not, one must analyze to fully understand. Poetry is a challenge. One of my favorite poets, John Berryman, went on record as having said that a poet should disrupt the expectations of language, giving the reader a new perspective. This is a daunting task, both for the poet and the reader. It assumes a certain level of knowledge on the reader’s part, which is another facet of poetry that often scares readers away—poetry, more than any other form of literature, has its own set of rules (scansion, rhythm, stresses etc.) that aren’t easy to pick up.
I’ve found that if you doff the seeming high-mindedness associated with poetry, you will have a much more enjoyable and rewarding experience. Always read a poem out loud. Don’t take for granted how much you gain by actually hearing the words out loud as opposed to hearing them in your mind. With that, I want to share with you a few of my favorite poems, those which turned me on to the genre many years after my last poetry class in college. One is easy to follow, one is a bit more complex, another is wonderfully simple, and another will just make you scratch your head. I’ll try to curtail my commentary as to allow you your own, individual experience with each. Enjoy!
When you are old, William Butler Yates, 1893
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
Fairly straightforward, no? The second stanza is what gets me every time—“the pilgrim soul” line, implying that this person’s soul has been known, and loved, before. For such a simple (and short) poem, it’s a large concept to throw in there (and only done so with three words!). This is a good example of Berryman’s idea of the poet challenging the reader’s perspective.
Now let’s move on to something a little more recent.
from The Book of Nightmares, Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight, Galway Kinnell, 1971
And yet perhaps this is the reason you cry,
this is the nightmare you wake screaming from:
in the pre-trembling of a house that falls.
Here’s where things get interpretive. This is the last stanza of a longer poem, but even out of context it still resonates and makes sense. What comes before is equally challenging in terms of how Kinnell uses language (“pre-trembling” being a good example of that), but this series seems to be about a parent talking to their child. The theme is left as simple as that, with bulk of the ensuing poems being left to reader to interpret.
Winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Poetry, Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night is a stirringly simply, yet beautiful, representation of what modern poetry is capable of.
from Faithful and Virtuous Night, An Adventure, Louise Glück, 2014
As we had been flesh together,
now we were mist.
As we had been before objects with shadows,
now we were substance without form, like evaporated chemicals.
Neigh, neigh, said my heart,
or perhaps nay, nay—it was hard to know.
Do you think this is about death or love? Or the death of love? Or the love of death?
I’ll leave you with a challenge. John Berryman is perhaps the king of challenging poetry. Sometimes his work just looks like a collection of unrelated words on the page, sometimes they are incredibly linear and easy to follow. Having been awarded the 1965 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, The Dream Songs still to this day are much analyzed and love.
from The Dream Songs, John Berryman, 1959
A Stimulant for an Old Beast
Acacia, burnt myrrh, velvet, pricky stings.
—I’m not so young but not so very old,
Said screwed-up lovely 23.
A final sense of being right out in the cold
(—My psychiatrist can lick your psychiatrist.) Women get under
All these old criminals sooner or later
have had it. I’ve been reading old journals.
Gottwald & Co., out of business now.
Thick chests quit. Double agent, Joe.
She holds her breath like a seal
and is whiter & smoother.
Rilke was a jerk.
I admit his griefs & music
& titled spelled all-disappointed ladies.
A threshold worse than the circles
where the vile settle & lurk
Rilke’s. As I said,—
One of the greatest joys (and challenges) I’ve given myself in recent years is to read and analyze these poems myself. I’ll admit, it’s rather frustrating, but it’s a great mental workout. And, in the end, that is what poetry is—a mental workout. If you find yourself gravitating to more challenging novels, try picking up a collection of poems. I think you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised at how much you enjoy the experience.