Poetry: You’re Doing it Wrong
I have always tried to like poetry. Since I enjoy the company of words so much, it makes sense that I would like poetry too, but I don’t. I never hated poetry exactly, I just never ‘got’ it, no matter how hard I tried. No matter what poem I read, I just couldn’t make that elusive connection with it that I can make with fiction, that sweet beautiful zone where the words flow effortlessly through your eyes and into your brain, taking you away to another world, filling your mind with a different reality. My shallow, narrative brain just read through the words, trying to understand what they were getting at, trying to see the story, the scene, the emotion and just saw the words. I read poems, nodded at them and put them aside. That has pretty much been my relationship with poetry – smile, and nod.
Turns out, I was doing it wrong.
I have always wanted to read The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. This is a classic I have been gunning to get through for a very long time. I finally went for it, bought that book and dove right in. Now as you may or may not know, The Divine Comedy is really a bloody long poem. Still, I pride myself on stubborn resourcefulness, so I did a little research to get my bearings and then jumped right in, and failed miserably. I did not put The Divine Comedy aside with a smile and nod, I put it aside with a huh? Abject and total failure.
I was complaining about this sometime last year and someone who is a lot smarter than me informed me that poems are often at their best when read aloud and since I was having trouble getting a handle on the material, that might be something for me to try. I’m sure I have mentioned before that I live in some kind of weird bubble where I can’t access known facts, and this was one that had been kept from me, kept from as in never heard of before. Poems should be read aloud? What’s the difference, are you some kind of weird nut? How could reading it out loud, or listening to it read out loud, make that big of a difference?
I am almost done The Divine Comedy, Paradiso – Canto XI to be exact. I am not going to say it was easy or that I understood it all flawlessly, but I got the gist and it has been an amazing read, out loud. Here is an elegant warning from Paradiso – Canto II
O Ye, who in some pretty little boat,
Eager to listen, have been following
Behind my ship, that singing sails along,
Turn back to look again upon your shores;
Do not put out to sea, lest peradventure,
In losing me, you might yourselves be lost.
This revelation has even inspired me to revisit poems I failed to get in university. This is from The Pride by John Newlove.
But what image, bewildered
son of all men
under the hot sun,
do you worship,
do you hope to have
from these tales,
a half-understood massiveness, mirage,
in men’s minds – what
is your purpose;
with what force
will you proceed
along a line
neither straight nor short,
you cannot know
or result foretell,
whose meaning is still obscured as the incidents
occur and accumulate?
And this short, yet poignant selection from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly – and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.
I obviously have a long way to go exploring poetry, but if none of these selections move you even a little bit, I humbly suggest reading them out loud, or better yet, get somebody to read them to you. Turns out, poetry makes a lot more sense that way.