Because I have been enjoying Maureen McLane’s My Poets and because I have decided to do a Pulizter Poetry Project I thought I would write a little about my personal history with poetry by taking a cue from McLane. It turned out to be a longer post than I usually write but I hope I have done well enough that you don’t mind the length.
McLane has a chapter in My Poets called “My Impasses” in which she talks about learning to read poetry focussing in particular on points where she was at an impasse, a place of wanting to “get it” but not being able to. It is such places, she believes, that one learns the most:
I return to these early impasses in reading not simply to indulge in autobiographical meanderings but rather to suggest the important function of impasse in experience. For where my understanding failed and my rudimentary critical tools broke down, I was forced to reckon with the impensé of my relation to poetry. To make visible my presumptions: this is what breakdowns and impasses allowed.
And it is true, isn’t it, that when we wrestle with something, in this case poetry, we learn not only about the thing with which we are wrestling, but also about ourselves. Perhaps more than any other kind of writing, we come to poetry with a lot of baggage. By baggage I mean assumptions about what it is and how it is supposed to be read and that it is hard, a lot of work, that symbols and metaphors and all the tricks of poetry are puzzles that must be solved. I shouldn’t generalize so much, but it has been my experience that the way poetry is taught in school is a major contributor to the baggage. I carried around my share of that baggage for years and it has taken me even more years to whittle it down to the size of an overnight case. Oh the damage that well-meaning educators can do!
I retain the fantasy of the Platonic reading of a poem, against which all instantiated readings are mere shadows flickering on our shared, half-illuminated cave.
The Platonic fantasy is the largest piece of baggage handed to students by their teachers. My early experience of poetry was that it was fun, Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, rhymes and made-up words and silliness and sometimes something serious. But then came high school English.
The teacher stood in front of the class reading out pieces of the poem and asking if anyone knew what it meant? Sometimes a student, brave or stupid or both, would hazard an answer and most of the time is was “wrong” or only partially right and the teacher would tell us the “correct” answer. Poetry was always taught to me as though there was only ever one way to read it and the teacher always knew the right way, the answer, the Platonic reading. It served to make me afraid of poetry because I never, or rarely ever, “got it.”
But I still liked poetry, just usually not the school sanctioned kind. At home my sister and I worked on trying to memorize Poe’s “The Raven” for fun and every Christmas Eve I would recite from memory for my sister, who held the book in order to gleefully correct any mistake, “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” T’was the night before Christmas when all through the house… My sister loved Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and had me held her memorize it which meant I picked it up too.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
These poems told stories. They made sense. And even if there were hidden symbols and meanings it didn’t matter, only the story mattered. Plus, they rhymed and were fun to say aloud and felt good in my mouth. They were the poems that kept me from hating poetry.
Because then came college and professors and their Platonic readings. Not once did any of them hint that a poem might be read in any other way than the one they told us. I wonder why so much literature, especially poetry, gets taught this way? I became an English lit major not because of poetry but because of novels, because I liked to read and like so many before me and so many after, I was under the impression that classes would be like a big book group.
Even though I wasn’t interested in poetry and avoided it as much as I could, it still reared up and forced me to take notice. I had to fill my schedule one semester and a class on the Romantic Poets seemed the lesser of the evils that were left. Coleridge was a Romantic, maybe it wouldn’t be bad.
I spent the semester mostly not getting it.
I am fascinated by the threshold where one hovers, not getting it yet wanting to get it…. I have found this vale of unknowing yet wanting-to-know to be a fruitful vale, a dwelling place worth sharing-pondering.
But I wanted to get it so badly that once in awhile, in spite of the professor, there would be a glimmer. The final exam for the class involved having to memorize a 160 lines of poetry and then going to the professor’s office and reciting it to him. I was good at memorization. I memorized Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.” And something strange and unexpected happened.
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
And I did begin to see.
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
The unfamiliar thoughts and emotions of the poem snuck in when I was memorizing the words. They felt good. And somehow they opened a little window.
The movie Dead Poets Society came out and it dawned on me that in spite of what teachers and professors said, there was more than one way to read a poem. I realized that there is more to reading a poem than looking for the symbols and metaphors and secret meanings.
Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned
the earth much?
Have you practiced so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin
of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun…. there are
millions of suns left,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand…. nor
look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.
(Walt Whitman, Song of Myself)
By no means did poetry suddenly become wonderful and amazing. I was still scared of it, just not as much. But I understood that there was something there that I liked, something deep and moving that stirred my heart and stimulated my mind. Nonetheless, when poetry came up in classes, I still spent most of my time not getting it.
One must be gentle with one’s former self, one’s students, one’s current muddles, with anyone honestly trying but not getting it.
And then it came time to take my senior seminar and the one I wanted to take on novels was filled before my registration time even came up. I signed up for the only thing I could, a seminar on Adrienne Rich, a poet I had never heard of. I was terrified. A whole semester of poetry and I had no idea what to expect.
And on the first day of class the professor read.
And it turned out that
The shock of the new is not only a modernist mantra or an art-historical slogan but an ever-present potential charge, if you are a teacher, a student, a baby, or peculiarly receptive to opportunities for derangement.
Not only was I a student, but I discovered that semester that I am peculiarly receptive to opportunities for derangement. From all the years of mostly not getting poetry but really wanting to something had finally worked loose and I found myself caught up and swept away – deranged.
Every poet the professor mentioned, ever poet Adrienne Rich mentioned in her various essays, I kept track of on a list and started looking them up at the library, began looking for opportunities for derangement.
I am not by any means an expert on poetry but I am no longer afraid of it. There is still poetry that puzzles me, still poets that I don’t get. But
A wild patience has taken me this far (Adrienne Rich)
And I know that
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you. (Whitman)
Last year Bookman had an audiobook of T.S. Eliot reading “The Wasteland” and when he told me he was going to listen to it I thought, good luck. I had had bad experiences with Eliot. He was one I did not get and I was sure that Bookman was definitely not going to get him. But he did and he loved him and he listened to that poem in his car over and over on his way to and from work. And once when we were running errands he had cued it up to just after the beginning, to a part he really liked and made me listen:
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us
And it was beautiful. Yes! This is true, this is experience I know. And I was reminded that one does not have to get the whole poem and all its many nuances in order to enjoy it.
What we can also say is that certain works become readable (or newly or differently readable) under certain conditions; they take up their place not exactly ‘in the true,’ as Michel Foucault describes the epistemic reconfiguration of the human sciences, but rather ‘in the readable,’ which is to say the receivable.
Bookman had found a way into “The Wasteland” and shared it with me. I don’t have the whole poem yet, but that does not matter, I have parts that ring out and know that eventually, someday, the entire poem might sing.
Q: How to read?
Q: What to do?
A: LISTEN to aficionados read those poems or works they are committed to. Some revelation will surely be forthcoming.
It is also good, if possible, to listen to the author read her or his own poems. The internet is a great place for poetry. YouTube is filled with videos of poets reading. Poets.org often has recordings of poets reading as well. LibriVox is also a good place to go for audio poetry. Public domain works read by volunteers means the people who read poetry are ones who love the poems.
I often find myself reading poems aloud, especially if I am at an impasse. Speaking the words is a different experience than reading them and my brain wants to make sense of the words and will often find a sense when I read aloud that I did not find when I read silently. Reading a poem to someone else, sharing what you have found, can be a moving experience. Bookman and I frequently read poems or parts of poems to each other and I find that the emotion in the poem is amplified when I read it to him and sometimes I have to stop reading and collect myself because it gets to be so overwhelming.
In sharing my impasses with you I hope to offer encouragement to those who are hovering on the threshold of getting it but not getting it. You are so close! Don’t give up! And for those who read poetry once in a blue moon or always mean to but never seem to get around to it, I hope you are encouraged to return to your favorite poet or discover someone new.
To everyone reading this, I invite you to take advantage of the opportunities for derangement that poetry offers.
no sudden revelation but the slow
turn of consciousness, while every day
climbs on the back of the days before:
no new day, only a list of days,
no task you expect to see finished, but
you can’t hold back from the task. (Adrienne Rich “Turning”)