August 03, 2011

Why read poetry?

Recent research in Scotland shows that poetry is good for the brain, that reading and listening to poetry requires greater brain activity than reading prose, that it may help people with age-related memory problems, and children who are dislexic. If you clicked on the article from 2005, you know that I am not making this up.

From the article: Edwin Morgan, the nation’s official Makar, the Scottish equivalent of the poet laureate, added: "Writing poetry is almost a physical experience as well as mental. Children are rarely worried about extracting too much meaning from poems, but they seem to get a much deeper experience from it."

I don’t know much more about the research but I do know that the reading of poetry, in fact the reading of any truly good work of fiction or memoir, requires the reader to be deeply attentive, to make quick associations, to be part of what the poet Ed Hirsch has called a structured reverie (The American Poetry Review, July/August 1999), and to willingly suspend disbelief. These are all good things for the brain, let alone the heart. So take heart and read on.

A poem sits on the page in a decidedly different manner than prose. By this very fact, it’s hard to ignore that it is in a “form” that is meant to be noticed as part of the experience of reading the poem. The reader, like the poet Auden, asks himself this question in one of my favorite books The Dyer’s Hand (pp. 50-51) when he looks at the shape on the page: "Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?” That’s the first question Auden asked himself when he read a poem. And it’s a good one.

In some sense, looking at a poem might be compared to looking at a painting. When you go to a museum and stand before a framed painting, you know instinctively that the form of what you are looking at is part and parcel of how it communicates to you. There is no way to separate those two: the form and its communication.

This is true of any poem but to make my point in blunt fashion look at Easter Wings by George Herbert, the master of the conceit or extended metaphor—here in heavy-handed manner—I’m not suggesting that form should be this blunt.

Easter Wings

 by George Herbert

 Lord, Who createdst man in wealth and store,
         Though foolishly he lost the same,
               Decaying more and more,
                       Till he became
                         Most poor:
                        With Thee
                       O let me rise,
               As larks, harmoniously,
         And sing this day Thy victories:
 Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

 My tender age in sorrow did begin:
   And still with sicknesses and shame
         Thou didst so punish sin,
                   That I became
                    Most thin.
                    With Thee
                 Let me combine,
       And feel this day Thy victory;
     For, if I imp[1] my wing on Thine,
 Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

[1] A term from falconry: to mend the damaged wing of a hawk by grafting to it feathers from another bird.

Read Poetry to Write Better Prose

If the fact that a poem sits on the page in a form is so obvious, why do I think it’s so important to talk about? Because form, what form your writing will take, how form informs meaning, indeed how form is inseparable from meaning, are keys to writing both poetry and prose. Poetry helps focus the issue and the questions that surround it for us.

Understanding how form operates in poetry will make you a better prose writer and any poet worth his salt knows that form and meaning must be inseparable for the poem to succeed. This is as true for poetry written in a prescribed form (the sonnet, the villanelle, for example) as it is for free verse. But you may still conclude that poetry is more trouble than it’s worth. And you are not alone. The poet Marianne Moore said about poetry: “I too dislike it. There are things more important beyond all this fiddle.” From her poem “Poetry”—a sort of manifesto on what not to do in a poem.

How a Bad Teacher Turned You Off Poetry?

Sadly, few people buy poetry books. So, how could there be very many people reading it? If you’re among the minority who are reading it, I hereby honor you.

But I also say that if you’re not, it’s not your fault. I fault a lot of bad teachers of poetry for the state of poetry reading today. They are on my list of people who should get their just desserts because they had a captive audience and they taught how NOT to read poetry.

They made you hunt for messages and themes. This produces readers who won’t go near a poem and it also produces writers of awful poetry. A better suggestion than the hunt for meaning would be Auden’s second question when he read a poem: “What kind of guy inhabits this poem?” That’s a good one to remember and he elaborates on it: “What is his notion of the good life or the good place? His notion of the Evil one? What does he conceal from the reader? What does he even conceal from himself? (W.H. Auden, “Making, Know and Judging” The Dryer’s Hand, p. 51).

A poem is not a very good poem if the only reason we read it is for the message. Or to put it more simply, if a prose statement would be better than the poem or at least as good, the poem isn’t very good. Fiction or poetry that is purely idea driven won’t succeed for the reader. So, if you read a poem and are uncertain how to sum it up neatly, how to state its so-called theme, you’re not confused, you’re wise. Its layered complexity of meaning is why it’s worth rereading, why it gives pleasure, breaks open again and again in different ways and why it can’t easily be summed up with a “message.” This is not to say that the poem doesn’t have anything to say. It is to say that a good poem has more than one thing to say.

The poet cannot speak in abstraction. He must be concrete. The reader must quite literally see what you mean. A good poet to read on this is Wesley MacNair in this essay:  "Advice for Beginning Poets". 

But how do we go about understanding how the poem is made, let alone attempting to write one? It seems to me  the answer lies partly in understanding something about its “form.” Both the poet and the prose writer will benefit from knowing something about the form of poetry. You may be thinking at this point, But what about free verse? My answer comes from one of its masters, T.S. Eliot, who said “… no verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job. … [A] great deal of bad prose has been written under the name of free verse …. [O]nly a bad poet could welcome free verse as a liberation from form. (from his essay “The Music of Poetry” On Poetry and Poets, p. 31.)

I have much more to say about this, but suffice it now that I add this note to close: Poetry is poetry because rhythm drives the poem, is essential to its meaning—even if that rhythm doesn’t follow a prescribed form. You know it’s a poem when you see it , of course, but primarily, you know it’s a poem because you hear its rhythm. 

And if you write fiction or memoir, rhythm is key to the your voice.

Read Poetry:

To make your brain stronger.
To become a better writer

Most important, read poetry for the reason William Carlos Williams gave us in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”:

My heart rouses

               thinking to bring you news
                              of something
that concerns you
                 and concerns many men. Look at
                                  what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
                despised poems.
                               It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                 yet men die miserably every day
                                 for lack
of what is found there.