A lot of editors highly recommend reading poetry as a way to improve our craft. But should we read poetry even if we don’t understand it? I have a lot of respect for poets, but often I don’t understand what I’m reading, and that discourages me at times from reading it.
—Petrified by Poetry
Heck, you didn’t think you were all alone in this, did you? Because there are a whole bunch of people who stay away from things we don’t understand. (One could say this a key reason people are afraid of diversity, but that’s for another column.)
Look, no one likes to feel stupid. And reading things – or watching things, like French movies that don’t seem to actually end – that you don’t “get” is a surefire way to feel like you’re not the sharpest tool in the shed. But hey, great news: There are plenty of poets out there you will be sure to understand. Read them first.
Look, editors aren’t telling you to read poetry because we think you need to understand it all; we are telling you to read poetry because we want you to pay attention to the line breaks, the spacing, the word choice, the economy of wording, and the phrasing. Take it line by line, word by word, white space by white space.
(Also, some poets deliberately write to be obscure. And you’re not going to like every poet, just like you probably don’t like every writer or TV show or album ever produced by Pink Floyd. All of that is cool. It shouldn’t hamper your reading the ones you do like.)
One more thing: Just because you don’t get it now doesn’t mean you won’t get it later. Assume a growth mindset. Your brain is huge and super-plastic; it’s busy absorbing things even if you don’t quite know that’s happening.
Here are some poems for you to get started.
Here’s Ogden Nash:
The truth I do not stretch or shove
When I state that the dog is full of love.
I’ve also found, by actual test,
A wet dog is the lovingest.
Here’s Emily Dickinson:
To fill a Gap
Insert the Thing that caused it –
Block it up
With Other – and ‘twill yawn the more –
You cannot solder an Abyss
And here’s the first stanza of “scruples,” by Nate Marshall:
is the word i tell anyone who asks
for my favorite. what sounded
to me like a doctor’s instrument was just a
name for the hesitation respectability births.
Keep on. And keep me posted on the poets you eventually discover.
Fear of the Unknown Keeps Us Sharp,