Do you love poetry? Hate it? Feel indifferent?
Every writer should read poetry and take a stab at writing it. Even if it’s not really your thing, your prose writing will improve if you’re at least acquainted with the basics of poetry and the more well-known poets.
Some people think poetry is boring or stupid, or they say they don’t understand it.
Poetry can be challenging, it’s true. It’s not easy sometimes, but I was fortunate to have a few professors in college who made it fascinating.
I even wrote my master’s thesis on a very long poem by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) called The Prelude. Written and rewritten over the course of Wordsworth’s life, it’s a semi-autobiographical account of the poet’s childhood.
It’s not boring if you’re studying sexual symbolism in poetry—think Freud and cigars.
Who’s not interested in sex? It’s human.
Of course, it wasn’t much fun when I had to defend my research to a committee with the power to pass or fail me. Six stodgy old male professors seemed to have a very hard time understanding—from a girl in a black mini skirt and jean jacket—how boat oars beating the water represented a young man’s sexual fantasy.
Poets are human, after all, and poetry is about life. It’s not the job of a poet to state matters outright but, rather, to paint pictures with words. And at first glance, many poems seem devoid of anything remotely sexual.
But when you get into the symbolism, metaphor, and creative use of words, it’s a different story.
Take Leda and the Swan, for example, by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). A giant swan picks up a girl by the nape of her neck and rapes or seduces her in the sky while flying. Then he drops her. Sick, right?
Not if you know it’s referring to Greek mythology, the god Zeus, and how Helen of Troy and her siblings were conceived. Well, it’s still sick, but at least we can blame the Greeks instead of Yeats.
Take a moment to read the poem out loud:
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
Now read it again.
What do you see in your imagination? What do you feel? Even if you don’t understand the poem completely, do you get a sense of the action that takes place? Can you make out some of what’s happening even though much is disguised in artistic language?
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is often considered a maiden recluse who found her poetic inspiration in her flower gardens. Research suggests, however, that the passion which infused her work had much to do with (apparently unrequited) erotic love for a lifelong woman friend. There’s also evidence that points to a sexual relationship with a clergy member which resulted in abortion.
There’s no way to absolutely prove these claims even though clues in poems and correspondence seem strong. But reading Dickinson’s poetry certainly makes one wonder, doesn’t it?
Once again, read out loud once or twice.
Wild nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Futile the winds
To a heart in port,
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.
Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!
What do you imagine? What do you think this is about? Does the poem make you feel anything—sadness, a sense of longing, anger, wishful thinking?
Poetry is about life experience: observations, fantasies, dreams, memories, and anything, really, that a poet chooses to write about. All topics are fair game, and the success of a poem is largely measured by how vividly the reader can share the experience or the vision of the poet. (Keep in mind that the “speaker” in a poem is not always the poet him or herself.)
What are the benefits of reading poetry?
As a writer of prose—fiction, non-fiction, business writing, copywriting, blogging—you want your writing to be the best it can be.
One way to improve your writing is to read the writing of other writers, and poetry is essential.
Poetry is like a novel or short story condensed, and condensing a long, complex subject requires a high level of skill. And you won’t see that skill exemplified quite so well in longer prose works as you will in poetry. Why not go to the source?
How can musicians understand rhythm and use it in their own compositions if they don’t listen to music? And the same goes for writers: how can you check for rhythm and cadence in your writing—or even know what it is—if you don’t read poetry?
- Makes you more intuitive in finding rhythm in your own work.
- Builds your vocabulary.
- Helps you understand metaphor and simile in a deeper, richer way.
- Enriches your understanding of imagery and symbolism.
- Helps you choose original, creative words for your own writing.
- Teaches how to convey strong emotions and complex thoughts with words.
- Provides lessons in brevity.
- Helps you interpret, understand, and express experience.
- Exemplifies use of historical and literary references.
- Sparks creativity.
Wordsworth wrote in The Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802) that poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”
With that thought in mind, read The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) out loud:
so much depends
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens.
Read it again (out loud).
What does it make you think or feel? What emotion was the poet feeling when he wrote it?
If you wonder what it could possibly mean (and wonder why anyone likes it), that’s OK. But give it another try. Can you see that wheelbarrow? The chickens? The rain water? This is imagery.
Nobody really knows what it’s about, but most agree that its strength is in the imagery: it can stand alone without a meaningful message. Others believe it refers to agriculture or the idea that civilization depends on simple machines.
How to learn more about poetry
All the poets and poems I’ve mentioned are very well-known. But there are plenty of great poems written by lesser-known poets.
If you’re new to poetry, and if you’d like to learn more, it’s best to stick with the tried and true. The Norton Anthology of Poetry is a great place to start. Norton provides plenty of information about poetry and poets on the site, and they also publish other anthologies. (I’m not associated with them; I know their publications because they’re required student reading at many universities.)
Browse through any collection of poetry—or search on Google with “famous poets”—and when you find one you like, explore. Read more. And remember to read out loud: it’s how poetry is intended to be read.
Just keep in mind that a lot of what’s called “poetry,” as in greeting cards, usually isn’t very good at all.
And there you have it: a brief introduction to poetry. There’s so much more, and much more to come here at Simple Writing in addition to articles on writing in general.
Friday is Coffee Shop Poetry Day
I’ll read a poem and provide you with a PDF or a link so you can read along. In this first reading (below), I scroll on a PDF as I read. I’m afraid it might make some people dizzy, though. Please let me know what you think. (Maybe I’ll do a podcast instead.)
I’ll mix it up: some days the choice will be something simple and easy to understand. Other times, meaning may be obscured with symbolism, historical references, or concepts once well-known but no longer familiar.
I’ll give a little information on what the poem is about or a link to where you can read more. I might mention a few things to look and listen for, but that’s it. This is meant to be casual.
If you have any questions, just leave a note in the comment section, and I’ll do my best.
NOTE: I have to put this project on hold for awhile. Turns out selling my house is taking far more time than I thought! And it’s unpredictable, too. I’m sorry if you were looking forward to it!
This week, it’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot.
This poem is complex, and understanding it requires some study. But don’t worry about it (if you don’t know this poem).
Sit back, close your eyes, and listen to the rhythm. Notice the repetition of words. Rhyming or near-rhyming. Images that occur suddenly like the “pair of ragged claws/Scuttling” or the recurring images of female arms and “long fingers.”
Does the poem make you feel anything in particular? Think of anything in particular? Share in the comments.
Stay tuned for Coffee Shop Poetry Day next Friday!
Over to you. Have you studied poetry? Written poetry? Like it? Love it? Can’t be bothered?