Thu 12 Oct 2006
Every day, people who never eat escargot or go to the opera read poetry and like it. They aren’t necessarily wise, or soulful, or artsy, or well-trained, or weird, or dedicated. They don’t have to be suckers for shmaltz. They just find some poems that they like, and they read them. Then they say, “Huh! Good poem,” and go about their business.
Somehow, a lot of us have gotten the idea that poetry is difficult, and only for the chosen few. According to this theory, if you are going to read poetry “the right way” you’ve got to be really smart and learn a bunch of rules. But everybody, whether they know it or not, likes poetry. I can say this with confidence for the same reason I can say that everybody likes music. It’s such a big category that any individual is bound to find something meaningful, so long as he can avoid disqualifying himself from the search.
I used to go to wine tasting events with a friend who had, for many years, been a wine buyer for fancy restaurants. It was intimidating to go out with her because she knew all kinds of stuff about vintages and grape seasons and topnotes and finishes and whatnot. But she reassured me that wine tasting isn’t so hard. You just put a little wine in your mouth and see if you like it. If you do, try to remember which one it is. Later, you can work on identifying what it is that you like about certain wines– the sweetness? the peppery zing? the fruity smell? But everyone starts with a simple yes or no.
Her advice about wine tasting also transfers to poetry. A good poem will always capture your attention up front with something pleasing, interesting, or beautiful. It might be the images it scrolls across your inner vision. It might be the sounds of the words or the rhythm of the lines. You don’t necessarily have to know what it is you like, and you don’t have to understand all its complexities and shades of meaning. You just have to take note: this poem is inviting me in. I like it.
Sometimes you can read a poem once and be satisfied, and move on to the sports roundup or the top ten lists. Other poems might draw you back again and again, because you sense there is something else there, some tiny but steady tug. For me, Wallace Stevens’ poems are often that way. I love them right off because they sound great and play around so much (how cool a title is “The Emperor of Ice Cream“?). I don’t usually “get” them on the first take, if ever. But they make such a good first impression, and the characters and voices draw me back, to see what will happen when I read it this time. I may feel a certain darkness behind the bright colors that I want to explore.
I don’t consider myself a bad reader if I look at or hear a poem one time, take it at face value, and abandon it. Some poems are no good. Some poems are only good enough for one time. Some poems are may be good enough for more, but I’m busy, or tired, or looking for something different. Big deal. I don’t have to know the deep dark secrets of every poem and be its best friend forever.
If a regular person did want to read some poems once in awhile, where could they be found? It used to be, a few generations ago, that most of the major newspapers printed poems and poetry reviews. That custom has gone the way of the soda fountain, but all is not lost. Here are some links for anyone wanting to encounter good poetry now and again:
- Poetry Daily– a new poem selected from recent literary journals every day.
- Poet’s Choice– The Washington Post runs a regular column in which a poet (current columnist: Robert Pinsky) picks a poem he or she enjoys, and talks about it a bit. (free registration required)
- Poetry– If you want a regular source of poetry in your mailbox, I recommend this journal. It is a good size to tuck into a purse or briefcase, it’s monthly, and it’s full of variety in its poetry and wit in its commentary. It runs half-off subscription specials in April.
- The Favorite Poem Project-- Has videos and recordings of regular people reciting their favorite poems.
- If you want to search for or look up a poem, a good place to start is the Poetry Foundation’s website or the Academy of American Poets. Poetry X has a good archive too, and on Bartelby you can find stuff that is now in the public domain.
- And Sarah has reminded me of the Writer’s Almanac, which will send a daily poem to your email inbox. (Thanks, Sarah)