My Relationship to Poetry

I’ve been inspired by that blog goddess Stefanie to write about my relationship to poetry (and you should check out her original excellent post here). I think that if there is a genre for which the word ‘relationship’ is appropriate, poetry is the one. No other form of writing inspires such extreme emotions of love, fear, fascination and repulsion. Nor, I think, do readers ever develop and change so much with regard to what they are reading. For a lot of people, poetry is something you come to late in life, like the priesthood, or holiday cruises. It was certainly the case for me that poetry was something I avoided for many years, because I felt so uncertain what it was I was looking at. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with this thing, the poem, and I wasn’t at all sure what it was giving me. It’s not so surprising that it was precisely the sense of a ‘relationship’ to poetry that I was missing.

Poetry was not what you would call ‘taught’ at my school. We read a few poems out in class, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Eve of Saint Agnes. For a thirteen or fourteen year old these were dreadful choices. Screeds of dusty-sounding epic poetry about lives, feelings and experiences to which I could not possibly relate. I was not even sure what was happening in the poem for much of the time, that awkward way poetry has of backing up to its point, with all sorts of digressions and diversions, made it hard to hold the narrative arc in my head. The only poet I could cope with was Tennyson, whose Lady of Shalott did at least tell a story, although the words

Out flew the web and floated wide-
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.

Was perhaps, I felt in my ignorance, a story of particularly bad PMT. This is the problem with poetry – you can make some howling errors with it.

No I had reached university before I had to tackle poetry, and my first experience was little better than school. I sat in a 19th century literature supervision with several pages of photocopies on my lap while our supervisor read out in his sonorous French a lengthy poem by his favourite Romantic poet Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle. When it was finally over, he asked (fortunately for me) my supervision partner what he thought of it. And after some consideration my partner said: ‘It was very nice.’  This was both funny and awful, as I seriously doubted I could say anything more cogent myself, except that in all honesty I hadn’t even liked the poem enough to call it ‘very nice’. It was just a glassy river of words that went flowing past, with no means of gaining traction on it, just this relentless, featureless torrent whose depths and undercurrents were so very opaque to me.

And then came Rilke. If it hadn’t have been for Rilke I would probably still avoid poetry to this day. But Rilke I fell in love with, and love neutralises fear.

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?

and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure

and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying.

Rilke and his angelic orders showed me that my mistake was to think of poetry as a more troublesome form of prose. A poem is more akin to a piece of music or a mathematical equation. You either ‘get it’ on a different level of understanding altogether or it remains forever cold and closed to you. For me, at least, poetry involved love, admiration, a sort of sensual attraction to the words involved. I don’t to this day have any clever ideas about what Rilke is saying but the glorious thing is that it doesn’t matter. I love the way he says it. I feel sucked into his voice, and its urgency, the feel of the words striving to tell me something powerful and essential but enigmatic. I feel as if I am receiving a strident call to let go, to abandon the rational realm, and simply to thrill to the power of a phrase. This is not the sort of thing I am comfortable with generally, so it has to involve love, for me.

Over the years, I have come to enjoy poetry by allowing myself not to like the vast majority of it. I will never be fundamentally a poetry person, because my heart is with the interesting explanation, the clever plot twist, the brilliant sentence of characterisation, and the harmonious closure of a satisfying ending. But there are still poets I love: Rilke, Yves Bonnefoy, Sylvia Plath, Ann Sexton, Louise Glück. I feel it is a little unfortunate, but when a poet is mad, it helps. No one beats Plath on a bad day:

Mother, you sent me to piano lessons
And praised my arabesques and trills
Although each teacher found my touch
Oddly wooden in spite of scales
And the hours of practicing, my ear
Tone-deaf and yes, unteachable.
I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere,
From muses unhired by you, dear mother.

Although Anne Sexton in her wonderful sarcastic-ironic voice comes pretty close in her retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves:

This time she bought a poison comb,
a curved eight-inch scorpion,
and put it in her hair and swooned again.
The dwarfs returned and took out the comb
and she revived miraculously.
She opened her eyes as wide as Orphan Annie.
Beware, beware, they said,
but the mirror told,
the queen came,
Snow White, the dumb bunny,
opened the door
and she bit into a poison apple
and fell down for the final time.

The thing is, I need a poem to be telling me some kind of story. I can’t do (or at least have not yet found) the kind of poems that get lost in the beauties of nature, or some vague cosmic awe. I like poetry that tackles the problems of identity and I like poems about love, and I especially like poems that make me laugh. I can suffer from finding poetry pretentious to my ears (which I must insist is a kind of tone-deafness on my own part), so poems that are funny are a wonderful antidote. Wendy Cope, in particular:

Two Cures For Love

1 Don’t see him. Don’t phone or write a letter.
2 The easy way: get to know him better.

Wendy Copy has been criticised as a poet of instant gratification, but in all honesty, that’s the sort of poem I like. The short, sharp hit, the resonant phrase, the thrilling stanza. I never lectured on poetry because I was afraid that I’d be expected to explain the mysteries of versification, you know, whether a line is a perfect alexandrine and all that. A mass of jargon all intended for saying extremely dull things, rather like explaining a good joke or a magic trick. If you don’t like poetry, then I’d say it’s because you haven’t yet found the poems you like. Poetry responds well to speed dating. Just get out there and wait for the fatal attraction to strike.

43 thoughts on “My Relationship to Poetry

  1. I agree with almost every word here, although I’ve yet to appreciate Rilke! So much of the poetry I read leaves me nonplussed, but then occasionally I come across something that hits a nerve.

    For me, it’s T S Eliot and Brian Patten. There’s no accounting for tastes.

  2. I came here to read more about French novels and found this, such a stirring and brilliant post, and I feel absolutely cheered now about my own relationship with poetry, which I try to revive every now and again by reading something difficult which I don’t understand and then feel depressed about. Whereas I DO enjoy the Keatses and the Coleridges, but feel weirdly guilty about it, because surely it doesn’t count if it’s easily understood? I really enjoyed all the poetry I read at university, but it was all pre twentieth century and I’ve never really got to grips with the moderns.

    I have been reading lots of Christina Rossetti’s poems recently but I am going to seek out your favourite poets, Rilke and Anne Sexton I’ve meant to read for ages in a dutiful, my-next-stab-at-enjoying-poetry sort of way. But now I know I may well actually enjoy them!

    It’s a pity I can’t be happy with my opinion unless someone else has voiced something like it, but there we are. I love what you write about Rilke, I am going to read some right now. And eat some cheese. I think this post should be placed prominently in schools throughout the land, sorry to gush.

    • Oh bless you, dear Helen. I am so happy that this post made sense to you, and you know what? I think we are all affected by the opinion of others, and even a resolute face turned against what other people think is still a big reaction. I find that just about everything to do with poetry requires a sort of lionhearted intellectual courage, the kind that makes you move forward with head held high and hopeful. I also think it’s very tempting to ‘punish’ ourselves with what’s hard, in the hope that it will somehow redirect our wayward hearts. But in the end, poetry is the genre that’s most about energy, I think, and that is completely uncontrollable. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think about the poems you read – don’t be afraid to dislike as well as like! You are completely free.

  3. You’re so kind Litlove!

    I like “I don’t to this day have any clever ideas about what Rilke is saying but the glorious thing is that it doesn’t matter. I love the way he says it.” This is so true. There are lines in poems and sometimes entire poems that I have no idea what they mean but the way it is said is so wonderful I don’t care that I don’t get it.

    I like that you call it your relationship to poetry. There is something about poetry that is so much more personal and intimate that fiction, to me at least, that it really is very much like a relationship.

    Have you started reading My Poets yet? 🙂

    • I haven’t started reading it yet! I really want to get to it, but life is in one of its manic patches, and it’s the sort of book that I want to feel relaxed and contemplative for. I think you are spot on when you say poetry is more intimate than ordinary fiction. It is, isn’t it? You can’t find ways to orient yourself in a poem, they are mostly too short. Either you’re in it, or you’re not. And thank you for writing your wonderful post, which inspired me. 🙂

  4. I do like poetry- was lucky enough to discover it as a teenager & still enjoy it- though have less mental headspace for it than I used too…I would choose to take a very large anthology of poetry with me if I was ever to be marooned on a desert island…(plus paper & endless supply of 2B pencils- I could become a poet then!)

    • I had forgotten about this comment when we met the other night and discussed our desert island books! But it’s an excellent idea, and a very good project for a castaway! 🙂

  5. I enjoyed this post and Stefanie’s too, though it always makes me sad to hear people talking about professors who were insisting on the one “right” reading. I admit, I always feel a tiny bit skeptical that those student experiences are not 100% how the prof might remember what happened: I know I deal with a lot of students who think they should be able to say anything, and trying to get people to focus on what readings are supported best by the poem itself can seem like shutting down discussion when it’s mostly, or also, or ideally, about making the discussion better. (Stefanie, wouldn’t you have been disappointed, and also sort of cheated, if your English classes really had been no different from book clubs?) Perhaps — probably — I’m just feeling defensive as I’m prepping my intro to lit class for the fall and choosing poems to teach! And I just did some editing on an essay about poetry that made yet more (and much more stinging) remarks about the Bad College Professor who Ruins Everything. We’re just so misunderstood! Sniff.

    I don’t quite agree about versification being just dull jargon. I think it’s a bit like theories of harmonics or orchestration or rhythm or atonality in music: you can listen to music and love it (or hate it) just fine without knowing how it is made, but it can also be really exciting getting a sense of its structure and form and how a particular composer plays with the technical side, and for me the same is true of poetry–seeing how a really technically smart poet uses meter or form, for instance, can add a wonderful dimension to reading his verses, though you don’t have to know it. Scanning Tennyson, just for instance, has made me appreciate him much more. And to do this, you do need a bit of special vocabulary. And some sense of rhythm–which, interestingly, is where a lot of my students have the most trouble!

    But I definitely agree that sometimes the most important thing is finding poetry that speaks to you. I am certainly not able to read at all, much less well, a lot of contemporary poetry. I just brought a book home from the library today, actually, that was very highly recommended by a poetry expert on Twitter, and I can’t make sense of the poems in it at all. Yet, anyway. How hard do I want to try? Maybe I just need to allow myself not to like it!

    • Yes, Rohan, I am glad my lit classes weren’t like a book group. However, while I enjoyed many of them and had some wonderful teachers, the thing that surprised me was that we rarely if ever talked about enjoying literature in anyway; the pleasure of a well-turned phrase, the beauty of a description, etc. That was a big disappointment. And you are probably right, not as many of my teachers and professors insisted they had the right reading as I think, but from my perspective as a student, that is how they came across whether or not that was their intention. No slam against the profession intended! 🙂

    • Ah see, Rohan, this is why you have to teach versification. I don’t do it because I can’t see the joy in it, and that’s exactly what I don’t want to communicate to the students. Whereas you do, and so you would make a MUCH better account of it. At the end of the day, that’s really the most important thing to communicate, I think, the sense of value and significance and pleasure that comes out of reading in a critique-ing sort of way. It’s not that the students aren’t perfectly capable, but they do need guidance towards the routes that will bring them maximum satisfaction (and yes, I agree that we are always fighting to get students away from those extremes of saying nothing or needing to feel able to say anything). And our life is a hard one, precisely because we are trying to teach mental discipline for which we are not thanked! I was only ever taught poetry at Cambridge and have nothing but awe and respect for the lecturers. They were brilliant, so any failing in the area is well and truly mine! 🙂

  6. I was one of those teenage girls who mooned over poetry, reading it aloud in rapturous tones. My favorites were Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, and I eventually came to love a good sonnet–John Donne and Shakespeare were my favorites there. I don’t have patience with a lot of long poetry, although there are snatches of Eliot’s The Waste Land (and really all of Eliot) that I love. I like what you say about not understanding it but liking the sound and feeling of it. I’ve found that to be true, too, especially about those bits of Eliot.

    My problem now, though, is that I can’t seem to make time for poetry. I know I’m more likely to love a poem if I sit with it for a while, and I don’t have the patience for that these days when there are so many other things to read.

    • Oh Teresa, I do so hear you. I feel exactly the same – that poetry responds best to quiet, relaxed contemplation, and there is little enough of that every day. Still, we hopefully have many more reading years ahead of us, with all sorts of possibilities of variation and change in them. Also right with you in loving the Plath and the Sexton!

  7. I’ll try Rilke, but a phrase I particularly loved in your post was, ” love neutralises fear.” Amen! And so, because I love Robert Frost, perhaps I’ll continue on my poetry journey, beginner that I am, with him. Then move on to Rilke…

    • I have only read a little Robert Frost, but it was wonderful. Have you read Old School by Tobias Wolff? Only Frost features in that novel, and it’s a fantastic book about a young man’s coming to writing.

  8. I love love love nearly absolutely everything you have written here. I love the description of coming to like poetry by permitting yourself not to like most of it. That’s exactly what happened to me around poetry. Swinburne, weirdly, was the breakthrough. (Yours is obviously a better breakthrough than mine.)

    >>>You either ‘get it’ on a different level of understanding altogether or it remains forever cold and closed to you.

    This is the only thing I strongly disagree with. I agree that it’s a different level of understanding, but I don’t agree it’s love at first sight or never. There are loads of poems I’ve come to love after multiple rereads. When they catch you at just the right moment in your life, even if you never liked them before, they can suddenly become everything. You know? Yeats’s “The Second Coming” was like that. I read it at least a dozen times, and the baker’s dozenth time, I fell in love. Sometimes (as my mumsy says) it be’s that way.

    • Ah well, that’s just my relationship to poetry, and not yours. I can never do more than appreciate in a lukewarm way (if at all) a poem that doesn’t immediately energise me. Lucky you if you have managed to get past that particular road block! But I can still have hope that another moment in my life, certain poems might have resonance that they didn’t before. The beauty of literature is that it is full of endless chances of relationship – and I love that. And I have never read Swinburne! For you, I will.

  9. I guess I would like to extend Jenny’s point a bit – I am not sure why love is necessary either. I read and enjoy lots of poetry I don’t love, just as I do with fiction and essays.

    But I know I am not looking for love in the way many readers are. I am already in love. I love literature.

    I am in no way a poet, but reading from the poet’s point of view is a good way to move from waiting for the blinding flash to appreciation. Some knowledge of the technical side of poetry is obviously a big help with this, but that is true of fiction as well – of every art.

    Rohan, I never came across that monomaniac professor, the crazed parody of a New Critic I see described so often. Mine were competent professionals, good teachers, even. But I was not resisting the pedagogy, which helps.

    I am amused and saddened that Helen feels guilty about reading Keats and Coleridge – that is some sort of indictment of our culture.

    • Eh, Tom, I think it says something about me and my preconceptions of poetry rather than our culture more generally, unless you’ve come across such attitudes before. (I hope so anyway, it would indeed be sad if more common.)

      I was lucky enough to have fantastic teachers at university and I owe it to them I think that I enjoy and reread (although less and less as time has passed) the Romantics and Renaissance writers. But for me, now, if I’m to get past my puzzle-solving approach to poetry, I do need to feel something about what I read rather than just regard it as an intellectual exercise (I know that’s not what you’re suggesting, but it’s what I do) which I may or may not be equal to, and maybe that’s love.

      Anyway, you have stiffened my resolve, I shall now be out and proud about reading Keats and Coleridge. While trying out John Berryman again too.

    • I have advice then. I always have advice, but this is not so bad.

      Forget Modern. Go 1) back and 2) out. See if you feel guilty for reading contemporaries of Keats like Leopardi and Goethe (Heinrich Heine! Victor Hugo!), or predecessors like – well, like the whole glorious history of English poetry.

      Other high points: Augustan Latin poetry, medieval Spanish, early modern French. T’ang China. You will find lots of intellectual exercise, and lots to love.

      I also need to feel something about what I read, but I do not need to feel something right now. What’s the hurry?

      • Thank you very much for the advice, I really appreciate it and your suggestions are intriguing. I will definitely follow them up.

        I am not sure I really understand your last paragraph. I don’t expect instant gratification from a poem, but I find if I don’t feel something – curiosity, annoyance, delight – then to be frank I won’t give it my full attention and will turn to something else. Or do you mean that sometimes your feelings about a poem crystallise later after reading other poems, in context or contrast or something?

        What’s the hurry? Time’s winged chariot, Tom – I looked round and now I’m middle-aged. [weeps and rends clothes]

    • Tom, you have a very different approach to literature to me, and that’s what I like about you (well, that and lots of other things). But emotions are what they are, and they won’t be messed with. I love what I love, when it comes to poetry, but then that’s why this post is entitled ‘My relationship to poetry’ and not anybody else’s. It’s a very interesting idea to read from the poet’s point of view – how would you know you were inside the right one? I’m presuming you must mean something other than the old vexed chestnut of authorial intention, yes?

      • I know I am inside the right point of view if the poem makes artistic sense. Maybe it is the actual poet’s actual point of view, maybe it is something I invented. Reading is an act of the imagination.

  10. I always liked poetry even if I didn’t understand every poem because there was still the sound. I also think that’s a reason why many poets make great novlists because they have an ear for sound. Mayn writers in my opinion focus on story and meaning, style, yes but as a picture, symbol, not as sound.
    I suupose it goes wrong the moment you read one genre as if it was a shorter or longer form of another one. But, like it happenend to you with Rilke, one special poet can maybe open the doors for all the others. That’s why i think anthologies are a great way to ge to know poetry.
    I hadn’t known that Anne Sexton poem. It’s amazing.

    • I completely agree that poets make great novelists. I am often very eager to try the novels of a poet, and look out for them especially. And anthologies are a great way to find poems you love – I am a big fan of Daisy Goodwin’s. She has a brilliant eye for a poem. You should read Sexton’s collection ‘Transformations’. The poems are all rewritten fairy tales and absolutely marvellous.

  11. I very much enjoyed this post! It seems that we each need to find our own way to poetry, and sometimes that’s through a class or a teacher and sometimes it’s not. Thinking about Rohan’s and Stefanie’s comments here, I’m starting to feel uncertain about the teaching I have coming up very soon! There are so many ways to mess up, it seems. Stefanie’s point about not hearing teachers talk about enjoying literature sticks with me, though. I can at least make sure we have room in my class for pure enjoyment and pleasure, as well as analysis.

    • Rebecca, if you do that then I think you will have it absolutely right. Whenever I taught poetry, I did it through critical commentary – photocopying several poems and letting the class work on them together. Just injecting enthusiasm and interest in the possible interpretations and ideas provoked by the poems was enough to keep the class happy! And then, if I could find a way through their readings at the end, and maybe to make out of them a greater point, and one that reflected back on all we’d read, then I felt we’d had a very good session. But I have absolute faith in you – you’ll be wonderful!

  12. I still have my copies of Ariel and The Bell Jar from my college days. We didn’t study Sylvia Plath, so I must have purchased them on my own. I do remember reading Ariel sitting on a bench on campus and thinking the poetry was “haunting.” “Haunting” was the best I could muster since I knew so very little about poetry then; that hasn’t changed. But I do agree with Stefanie’s comments that sometimes it is simply the way things are said that is so beautiful…the sounds of the words, or the rhythm of the words. It is a little like listening to music, as Rohan comments.

    • Grad, it is so interesting that you talk about Plath’s poetry as ‘haunting’. Some critics suggest that there is a ‘posthumous’ quality to Plath’s writing, as if it comes from beyond the grave. It’s a very subtle reading and one that I’m thrilled you picked up on.

  13. “A poem is more akin to a piece of music or a mathematical equation. You either ‘get it’ on a different level of understanding altogether or it remains forever cold and closed to you.

    Oh yes! you put that so well, and the poem about the cure for love made me laugh out loud. I read it to A (though he is the exception of course). I can also relate to the glassy river experience.

    • Oh I do love Wendy Cope. She so often makes me laugh. You could try A on the one about the dreadful evening the poet has when her lover has left – because he’s taken her corkscrew! Much that is delightful to share in her work.

  14. I love that description: “a glassy river of words that went flowing past, with no means of gaining traction on it”. I often feel that when I’m reading poetry. Sometimes I really get that traction, and at other times I just don’t. The trouble is that, whereas with prose I’m very confident in my ability to pinpoint what it is that didn’t work (for me) in a piece of writing, with poetry I just don’t have that confidence. I’m reduced to “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it”. Maybe it’s just a case of reading more – I’ve certainly read a LOT more prose than poetry in my lifetime, and I’ve written plenty of prose but no poetry (well, except that one time, but I really don’t like to talk about that). So perhaps it’s not really surprising. In any case, thanks for a post that, as usual, got me thinking!

    • Oh! that’s exactly how I feel. With prose I can say what doesn’t work (for me) but with a poem, nope, no idea. And I’m the same as you, having read far more prose than poetry so undoubtedly experience does come into it. Only of course now I really want to know about the poems you don’t like to talk about. 😉

  15. Ah, Litlove, thank you for this timely post – I have pledged to myself to redress a terrible imbalance in my writing for the Varuna Alumni News – to date I’ve neglected poets and poetry terribly. You could not have assisted my thinking more than if we’d had a conversation about this in person – many thanks, and I hope you won’t mind if I quote you?

  16. I was away on holiday last week and missed this post, or else I would have commented much sooner. What a wonderful post about poetry, Litlove! I LOVE that you call it that we can have a relationship with poetry. it seems to me that schools are trying to introduce is to it, but they kill it in analyzing it – the structures, etc – without, as you say, talking about the language. A person falls in love with music, with poetry, with paintings,because of how it moves you, in a way that is almost holy because it reaches a place that is almost without words. The wonder of poetry is that it does this with words.

    I have always read poetry – the first poem I remember loving? “Cats eat fat and walk thin,’ which I read in a Grade 4 textbook. lol for a long time after, I depended on school (this was back in the 1970’s), to teach me about poetry, and then I discovered Sylvia Plath in my late teens. I admired her, I loved her then, but I outgrew her – I find her angry and strident now – though I’m still drawn to learning about her, and wonder how she would have developed as a poet. It took me a long time to find a poet who resonated with me, but as soon as I read a poem by her, I knew. It was like a thrill in my soul, a shiver. Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver. I think its’ that shiver of recognition, here is another soul that sees the world, feels the world, in a way I recognize. That’s what I look for in poetry, that linking of myself and the poet. So it is a relationship, what a perfect way to say it!!

    Here is a post I did recently on poetry,
    that also links to a magazine with a wonderful article on how the author came to find her way to poetry, also.

    I really enjoyed reading this, Litlove.

    • And yours is just a wonderful comment, Susan! I love what you say about a ‘shiver of recognition’. Yes! That’s exactly what I’m trying to put my finger on, the moment when we enter a poem, when it becomes one with us, and it’s something beyond the identification that we talk about with regard to characters in fiction. It’s like the poem has seen us and understood us, and that’s immensely powerful. I should have mentioned Mary Oliver, who is a poet I only very recently discovered, but think she is fantastic. And the line ‘Cats eat fat and walk thin’ is pretty delightful too! I can see I will have to track that whole poem down. Isn’t that the way with poetry – it can feel like hard work, until love is involved and then we rush to go the extra mile.

  17. PS I forgot to add, that Wendy Cope makes me laugh as well as think, and she has such a sarcastic way of looking at the world. I really enjoy some of poetry, too. That poem you quoted is so much fun!

  18. !!!! i love this — totally & utterly delightful! =D
    edifying, as a poet… Roethke was the poet that convinced me i was a poet and not a joke. I found an old, beat up volume of his called Straw for the Fire, just stuffed full of the sort of witty, insightful one-liners that often become the seeds of poems for me if i give them any credence. After 17 years writing, there is still so much to try, absorb, and temper…
    your blog is a favorite playground of mine -thank you for sharing.

    • Kate, thank you so much for leaving your lovely comment! I am sorry to say I have never tried Roethke, but will now see to that! I think that poetry must be the hardest thing to write – it requires such accuracy, such insider knowledge of language. I love the idea of a line in another poem setting off the creative process in you. How wonderful! And surely just what poetry is about, the moment that touches and ignites or illuminates.

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