Modifying my approach to reading poems

I have a confession to make. Although I have a degree from a million years ago in English literature with a minor in creative writing (poetry), I have heretofore not found very much poetry I’ve enjoyed reading. Sacrilege, I know. Former would-be literati like me are supposed to wet their pants with excitement at the first hint of anything vaguely poetic, and yet I’ve long harbored this dirty little secret that I don’t really like poetry. Most of it leaves me cold. Much of it is puzzling or is simply blah: Oh, this writer saw a bird flying. I’ve subscribed to Poetry Magazine for years and have, with rare exceptions, been more interested in the prose criticism and the letters to the editor than in the poetry, which I read dutifully if not enthusiastically. Of course, there’s the rare poem that grabs me by the jowls and makes me really appreciate it, and these (along with a dire need to hang on to some tiny portion of what was a modestly illustrious period of study and creativity on my part) are what keep me slogging through dull poem after dull poem.

Just recently, I was thinking a bit about my being something of a cold fish when it comes to poetry, and it occurred to me that perhaps my expectations of the poems are too high and of myself too low. Perhaps I’m a product of the culture of passive entertainment-consumption that I’ve grown up in. TV moves and talks, letting you slump on the couch with your hand making unconscious peregrinations between your bag of chips and your mouth. It’s a lively medium. Even fiction, because it tends to move along a narrative line with pacing that draws you in, is often almost a passive medium. But poetry — often episodic, observational, compressed, snap-shotty — requires in many cases that the reader invest something more of himself, of his sense of wonder. I read recently something about the difference between reading music on the page and hearing it, and I’ve finally, after more than a decade of academic interest in poetry, realized that a similar difference may apply to poetry. If you read it passively and expect the writer to have done all the work for you, you might as well just be looking at notes on a sheet of music. But if you strive to enliven the poem with your own experience and search for what good may be encoded among the lines, the payoff is likely to be bigger, rather more like hearing a piece of music performed. I have always expected poems to dazzle me and have sniffed at those that didn’t; to get more from poetry, I need to be more engaged as a reader.

I’ve been trying lately to be a more active reader while rereading the work of an old mentor of mine whose mentoring was outstanding but whose work had rarely excited me, and I’m discovering that he’s a much better poet than I’ve given him credit for in the past, and I’m by and large enjoying the reading.

I’m aghast that it’s taken me a decade to figure this out. In part I blame an education that taught me to dissect poetry rather than to enjoy it. It’s taken some time and distance to suppress (to a large extent) the urge to instantly take a poem apart and to try to enjoy nuance and diction and devices and cleverness rather than simply to notice and document them dispassionately.

Which is not to say that I suddenly fancy myself a great lover of all passable poetry. But I’m self-consciously trying to get at the stuff a little differently now, and I’m hoping that by trying to pull more from poems rather than expecting them to push all of their payload to me complete with fireworks and confetti and a singing telegram, I’ll begin to derive more enjoyment from reading them.

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