Pausing for Poetry

I’ve been reading a lot of poetry lately.

Sitting on my desk

Sitting on my desk

There was a time in my life when poetry had a daily place.  I was an undergraduate English major, remember, and then continued studying English literature through a PhD.  After that, I taught English at the college level.  That involved reading a lot of poetry, too.

I never really stopped reading poetry, but the automatic inclusion of poetry into my daily routine began to be, well, less automatic.  There were periods that the desire to read poetry rose in intensity.  There was the time I read Jim all the selections from T.S. Eliot’s Book of  Practical Cats, one an evening.  That led me to re-reading a lot of Eliot’s more “serious” verse and some of his verse drama.

Then Jim got into “Cowboy Poetry” – a rather specialized form of verse.  One of the qualifications to be a “genuine” cowboy poet is to have worked as a cowboy.  Jim’s co-worker Jeff Boyer is an official cowboy poet, some compensation for the aches and pains he has as a heritage of those rough days in the saddle.   (I’m not sure what compensation he gets for the aches and pains acquired as an archeologist.)   Jim started by reading Jeff’s offerings, then went on to other writers of the form.  Cowboy poetry isn’t bad, especially if you like rhyming verse (we both do) that tells a story or joke.

Another time, I was asked to write a story for the Irish-themed anthology Emerald Magic, edited by Andrew M. Greeley.  I decided to write a story featuring the poet W.B. Yeats and the lady he never stopped loving, Maud Gonne.  “The Lady in Grey” didn’t feature any poetry, as such, but it gave me an excuse to re-read a lot of Yeats’ work.  Then, as a means of keeping Yeats’ language and cadence in my mind while I wrote, I listened over and over to a recording titled Songs and Music from the Cuchulain Cycle that had been given to me many years ago.  Grand stuff.  I think Yeats actually would have approved of the Celtic rock beat to which the “The Harlot and the Beggar Man” is set at the end.  It’s stirring, caustic stuff that fits his words perfectly.

So here I am, reading poetry again.  I started as research, but this time the bug bit deep.  I’ve kept a tattered copy of a poetry anthology on my desk.  A couple times a day I’ve been opening it at random.  Now, this anthology purports to contain “Immortal Poems of the English Language,” so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but I remain astonished how many of the pieces I read contain lines that remain in daily use – even by people who would swear they know nothing about poetry.

Poetry is a good reminder of how a few well-chosen words can say more than paragraphs.   In fact, one definition of poetry I came across recently said that the art of writing poetry could be defined as finding the least possible number of words needed to get across an idea.  Not bad…

Do any of you read poetry?  Write poetry?  Recite poetry?

Maybe a good New Year’s Resolution (which I don’t make, of course) would be to give poetry a try…  Maybe you’ll rediscover an old friend.  Maybe you’ll stretch your wings and fly with a new.

12 Responses to “Pausing for Poetry”

  1. Nicholas Wells Says:

    While I admit I am primarily a story writer, now and again something hits me the right way, and a poem comes out. Good ones too. Still, it is few and far between. Since I started writing anything back in 2001, I have 21 poems in total. Though we can sort of discount 2-5 of them since they were for a creative writing class I took in college. I say that because we were required to write those poems in a certain way, or style, or whatever. They’re not terrible, just…. I don’t know. Not ones I consider officially “written” in the way I do the ones that were born or thought, feeling, or a random moment. They don’t have my flare. I’m not one for exact pose, or rhythm, or rhyme, or any kind of set structure. When they hit, I write what I think and/or feel. And as those who know me can attest, I don’t think normally.

    Oh my. Wandered off topic again. Meh, oh well. 🙂

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    About the only form of poetry I like is haiku. It’s sad, in a way. As a kid, I liked poems, but a long succession of authoritarian English teachers managed to grind the joy out of me. There’s nothing like playing years of “guess the meaning of this poem,” “No, you’re wrong, that meaning isn’t in the poem, how can you say that, guess again.” “No, you’re still wrong, here’s your B.” to make me turn away from most of the English poetry canon with a annoyance I’ve never gotten over. I’m simply too much of a contrarian to enjoy groupthink, and that’s what those teachers were trying to instill. Sorry Jane, but that was my experience.

    Fortunately, the teachers never talked about haiku, so I can still enjoy that on my own.

    As for the good people, Lenihan and Green’s Meeting the Other Crowd is a lot of fun.

  3. Alan Robson Says:

    I rather enjoyed poetry at school — but I was lucky, I had a wonderful English teacher who really brought the subject alive. We studied Robert Browning for O-level and I still have a soft spot for “Porphyria’s Lover” — probably because it’s a really, really sick poem. My teacher also introduced me to the wonderfully cynical John Donne. My interest in history led me to the WW1 poets (so much pain in those poems; I find them hard to read, but very rewarding). I never really liked the “moderns” — Eliot (except for Possum of course), Auden and Pound bored me and the beat poets might just as well have been writing prose (and possibly they were…). Larkin had his moments, though.

    For a long time, in the 1960s, poetry seemed to retreat into song (had it ever really left?). Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Lennon & McCartney et al (the list goes on and on). Then it seemed to die out, though there are signs of its return (Eminem does some very clever things).

    The problem with poetry (particularly when you throw the traditional forms away) is that it is far too easy to be pretentious, far too easy to pull intellectual wool over undiscerning eyes. Emptiness can be mistaken for profundity (I think Eliot did that in his ‘Four Quartets’ — he had some truly clever phrasing disguising very shallow thoughts). Wine bluffs and poetry bluffs have a lot in common and I remain cynical.


  4. Louis Robinson Says:

    Hmm… Yes, I dip my toe in it from time to time – usually just by grabbing the Oxford Book of Verse [English or Canadian, as chance directs. ‘English’, BTW, is arrogant shorthand for British], but there are some I am particularly fond of:

    Tolkien, of course – the first Tolkien I ever read was Fastitocalon, which was in my Gr8 poetry book
    Sandberg – anybody know if he has a poem about sand to put with Fog and Grass to complete the trifecta [“Of Mist and Grass and Sand”]?
    the ever-prolific Anon; and of course the ones I have to look up to remember who wrote them, like “Ozymandias” and “Abou ben Adhem”

    And Alan is right about how much memorable poetry is lyrics.

  5. Chad Merkley Says:

    One thing that I really like in poetry is the way it can be a minimalist form of story-telling. It doesn’t have to have a traditional narrative structure with beginning, middle, and end, but a good poem can capture an image of a certain character or concept. It provides just enough information to for us to fill out the story ourselves.

    Good song-writing does that too, as Alan mentioned. Some of my favorite living lyricists and song-writers are Heidi Muller, Bill Staines, Kate Rusby, and Aoife O’Donovan. They’re all performers, too. I find writing lyrics very challenging–for some reason I find myself trying to write in a very formal, structured way that ends up feeling stilted. I’ve been trying to do some more stream of consciousness writing to get ideas of my head. The next step is to actually take the ideas out of the notebook and do something with them, and I’m still struggling with that. But I find composing something like a contradance or Celtic dance melody much easier than writing lyrics, or putting someone else’s lyrics to music.

    And, as Alan said above “Emptiness can be mistaken for profundity”. That’s something I’ve noticed in both popular and folk music, although I might have said vagueness or being non-specific instead of emptiness. The question than becomes is that vagueness or emptiness due to a simple lack of technical skill as a poet, or is it due to pretention and a lack of understanding? Is the poor poetry caused by poor language skills or is it poor thinking and comprehension? Technical skill is largely a matter of exposure to good examples followed by practice. Modes of thinking are harder to address.

    Anyway, some of my favorite poets to read are Kipling, G.M. Hopkins, Ted Hughes, and Thomas Hardy.

  6. janelindskold Says:

    Lots of the poets listed are among those I’ve enjoyed.

    I think that teaching poetry would work a lot better if a few things were emphasized. One of these is that punctuation counts! So many people read poetry as if each line — not each sentence — was meant to hold meaning.

    Another element that makes poetry a “deciphering” game to many modern readers is that a common body of classic reference has been lost. Once upon a time a reference, say, to Apollo came with an entire bundle of information (sun deity, aggressive lover, laurel wreathe, archer, just to list a few). Today, readers need footnotes.

    Even Shakespeare was writing with his audience in mind. He could say “like the cat in the adage” and expect his audience to know the adage.

    If I were to teach today, I’d start with poems that don’t rely on those references and work backwards.

    It’s rather like Alternate History… If you don’t know the history that’s being alternated, a lot gets lost.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      Another thing affecting modern poetry, and the reading of old poetry, is literacy. Shakespeare could assume that his audience was _hearing_ the text, not reading it, not just because he was writing for the theatre, but because most of them _couldn’t_ read it. Now people will pick up a printed poem and assume that the visual pattern is more important than the linguistic or auditory patterns. Worse, sometimes, so do the poets – they build beautiful patterns on the page that may or may not say anything. In the best cases, it’s brilliant; in the worst cases… well, I’m not sure how to say it and stay PG 😉 😉

      The thing is, those best cases can usually [not always, admittedly, but usually] be read aloud and found to be passing good poems without the visuals. It’s the same way that I see people remarking on how much they get out of a well-read audio book. For poetry, that well-read [or well-sung] part is really an essential element. One that’s too often neglected today. Maybe reading to, and teaching students to read, would help make the subject interesting rather than numbing.

      • Alan Robson Says:

        Quite right! I hadn’t thought of it that way, but now that you point it out, it’s obvious really! Why didn’t I think of it before?

        Perhaps one reason that I remember my English teacher so fondly is that he always insisted the texts we were studying (both poetry and prose) be read out loud in the class. I’m sure it helped.


  7. Heteromeles Says:

    That’s true, so far as it goes, Jane. I’d add there’s the problem of too much knowledge, and the additional burden of having a teacher for whom there is One Right Interpretation, and the game is about figuring out (or recapitulating) what is in the teacher’s head, rather than trying to understand the poem for oneself. The former has happened when I have had an English professor haughtily inform me that, say, a black bird is a symbol for death, period. As a biologist (or as anyone who lives near a lake) will tell you, black birds are a heck of a lot more than that, and there are differences between ravens, crows, blackbirds, and grackles. As for the latter, I think you make an excellent point every time you talk about how every reader sees a book somewhat differently than every other reader, and most of them see the text differently than the author did. I’d be thrilled if more English teachers could make that point.

    Fortunately, it appears that I was especially unlucky in getting a string of annoying English teachers. Possibly the fault is mine? In any case, I’m glad others had a much more positive experience.

  8. Paul Says:

    I once had a college teacher who wrote what appeared to be a fine segment of free verse poetry on the chalkboard, breaking the lines at certain points for poetic effect. It turned out to be a passage from Joseph Conrad’s prose novel, “Lord Jim.” I guess the lesson was that you can make very good prose look like poetry, and the best prose has a spirit of poetry in it.

  9. janelindskold Says:

    A thread above had gotten pretty long so I’ll just add here — reading aloud and poetry go together for me.

    As for symbols having one meaning and one meaning only… In some cultures, absolutely, but by the time we get to, say, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” absolutely NOT!

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