We usually come to a text to a) find information or b) be entertained. (Why else would you be reading this?) Most of my friends don’t enjoy poetry, not because it isn’t informative or entertaining, but because as long as this is your aim, you will always miss it and think that poetry is not for you.
We read non-fiction for information and fiction to occupy our time and minds until something more interesting can be found. We have become information consumers, but this is not the way to read poetry. In poetry, knowledge is not exclusively conveyed through information, but also through delight. When you take time to smell the roses, you are neither informed, nor entertained. You draw close, bring it before your senses, you linger, you delight, and then it changes you. Even though no information in the sense of propositional truth was conveyed, you now know something you didn’t know before. In poetry, meaning is not formed through content alone, but through various devices such as sound, rhythm, and imagery; it is an aesthetic experience. Ironically, even though you can tell people this and theorise about it, by definition they will only understand it once they have experienced it for themselves.
Making the words disappear: some keys
The goal of poetry is to make the words disappear. Louis Simpson
As with any subject, the more you know about it the more you appreciate the skill of those talented individuals who make it look so easy. Luckily a mark of the best poets is that they are loved by laymen and literati alike. Below are three lesser known keys to enjoying poetry, and to making the words disappear.
Hearing is a deeper reading
A poem on a page is something like a musical score, waiting to be played. Joel Conarroe.
Most poems are better if read aloud. Reading a poem silently is like reading a musical score rather than playing it. Of course you can see what’s going on, but if that’s all you do, you are missing the point of the music. So even though it might feel a bit weird at first, you need to get over it and read the poem aloud. I still forget this, and it still catches me off guard when I read something aloud again. You don’t have to be a voice actor, but it does help if you don’t read all poetry as you would a funeral eulogy.
Reading and rhythm
When you read poetry aloud, you’ll start to realise it has a strange rhythm. But far fewer people understand metre – in my opinion a much more interesting feature as it fills the whole line, not just the last word. Metre is to poetry what the beat is to a song. Once you notice it, you’ll see it everywhere. It’s similar to rhyme, but more subtle and difficult to master. Many famous quotations (even though they don’t rhyme) will have a decent metrical pattern, helping the phrase fall musically on your ears. There are many different metrical scales: Shakespeare, for example, often wrote in ‘iambic pentameter’, which means ten alternating stressed-unstressed syllables in a line. Leonard Cohen wrote Famous Blue Raincoat in ‘amphibrach’. This simply means that a stressed syllable is placed between two unstressed ones, which is what the Greek and Latin poets used. Metre is what makes this song – which has little melody or rhyme – so hauntingly melancholic:
It’s four in the morning, the end of December
I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better.
New York is cold, but I like where I’m living,
There’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening.
Play it again, Sam
Someone I know was studying in the Netherlands on an exchange programme. One evening whilst reading her Bible in her room, some other students walked in and asked what she was doing. When she told them, they asked, “But haven’t you read it before? Why are you reading it again?”
Most Christians I know laugh when they hear the story. Why? Because they realise that those students didn’t understand that sometimes you have to read something more than once, possibly over and over again for the rest of your life, to know it, and to explore all its nooks and crannies. Your mind simply can’t deal with all the layers of meaning in one reading. And yet these same people would read a poem only once, to which I would reply (as I would to the Dutch students), “Do you kiss your lover only once?” In the same way, you don’t read a poem only once, considering it “read” and then moving on. This is especially true of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems. They are meditative experiences. You have to read his poems hurrylessly, aloud, and repeatedly (more than ten times) to see the wonder. Most people are too “busy” for this, and would rather read a 2000 word article on the internet than a 200 word poem, even though the poem required much more time and skill to construct than the article. Ironically, poets are philosophers who can write, and most philosophers are poets who can’t.
You can’t start with any poem just as you can’t read any book as your first book, some poems require less background knowledge to appreciate than others.
The Hopkins poem below is a good starter for a number of reasons. Firstly, he was trained as a Jesuit priest, making him philosophically and theologically formidable: he has something profound to say. But rather than write a treatise, he wrote a poem. (If you prefer something less theological, try Roethke’s The Waking)
Besides being a wordsmith, Gerard was also an artist, and believed that the sounds themselves convey meaning over and above their syntactic information content. A peculiar idea, until you read his poetry. He also coined the term ‘inscape’, where every separate flower, for example, was unique in a way, kind of like having its own soul. You’ll see that in the first stanza.
Ok, so here goes. Read it aloud, more than 10 times, and see what happens…
Gerard Manley Hopkins