Although I’ve been a big reader all my life, I’ve never been one for poetry. In high school, I suffered through readings of Shakespeare because I didn’t know enough about meter to judge whether the lines scanned well. Whenever I read poetry aloud for class, I stumbled and stuttered through stanzas, never quite knowing when to pause, what to emphasize, and where to let things flow. I never had—or, more likely, have just forgotten—any formal schooling on poetry. I don’t know what a dactyl is; I only have a dim sense of what differentiates blank verse from free verse; I have to diagram, pencil in hand, lines to get the rhythms and (sometimes) even the rhyme scheme. I can’t tell the difference between Yeats and Keats. I’ve never read The Aeneid, The Iliad, or The Canterbury Tales. I only recognize Pound and Eliot because they’re guaranteed to make my head hurt.
When I walk away from a poem in frustration, I’m really throwing up my hands at my own ineptitude. I had a reasonably strong liberal arts education in both high school and college, but I lack grounding in poetry. I don’t reliably know poetry well enough to know what’s good and what’s not, or even how to judge. I just know what I like, though sometimes not even that.
So why have I been, lately, so attracted to poetry? On a brief vacation in New York in February, I spent most of my subway rides absorbed not in the prose fiction I’d brought or the comics I’d bought, but in Ted Kooser’s slim, surprising Delights and Shadows. I’ve read more books of poetry in the last three years than I had in the previous twenty. Why, when I open my new issue of The American Scholar, are the poems the first thing I run to? Hell, I don’t even finish half of them.
Sometimes, I think it’s like some people’s relationship to postmodern literature or to avant-garde film—they feel a need to master it. “If I can get through Finnegans Wake, I’m king of the world!” Buried beneath the conquistador complex, of course, is insecurity about education.
So, insecurity may be at the root of this craving. Keeping up with the Joneses—or, better put, the desire not to look like a dumbass—has historically led to the sort of one-upmanship whereby people read things only to say they’ve read them. I talk about my cultural tastes with only a small group of people, almost all of whom are better read than I am. These friends aren’t impressed by people putting on airs, and I know this. So, I’m not trying to show anyone up. I don’t think so, anyway.
At my most idealistic, I think it’s about self-improvement. A good paragraph from an otherwise mediocre novel comes to mind:
“Back then, I harbored an inchoate version of a suspicion I still harbor today: that the intrinsic value of a thing is directly proportional to its initial incomprehensibility, and that things worth knowing often cloak themselves in hall-of-mirrors absurdity to scare off dabblers and those seeking choice small-talk nuggets.”
Poetry is hard for me. As a result, I often get a greater sense of satisfaction from getting inside and underneath a good sonnet than from finishing a big novel. It’s the sense that I’ve cracked the shell of an almost-shut pistachio and found the plumpest, most perfect nut inside. There’s not much evidence that hard-to-decipher literature is more worthy than easier stuff. But a serious reader of Elizabeth Bishop—someone who’s willing to embrace difficult and obscure lines—is less likely to be taken in by cant, and more likely to find nuance and complexity in the world.
Life is difficult, more complex than we imagine possible when we’re children. The older we get, the more contradictory impulses we accrue. We’re told that things will sort themselves out as we mature, that our opinions will solidify. “You’ll understand why Mommy left Daddy when you get older.” These sorts of things are reassuring, sure, but false.
Great art reflects all this—the fissures between what we know and how we act; the years of tumultuous thought inside a simple phrase; the raw emotion hidden inside of a whisper. Poetry, which compresses language into its densest, most economical form, gets underneath cant and absurdity and minutiae. At the very least, it expands the minutiae into something greater than itself. Prose is a loose, baggy backpack. Poetry is a tightly packed purse.
And that’s why I return to it, in the most clumsy and autodidactic way possible. It teaches me to pay attention, to unpack words and gestures more carefully, to try to get underneath the surfaces. Kevin Moffett has a great Believer essay about learning to read by plowing through Donald Barthelme’s reading syllabus for his students. It ends with an oddly hopeful line: “That summer, I still didn‘t see through the haze of my good intentions. But I was beginning to understand what I did not know.”
That right there, more than anything else, is why, after I throw up my hands and seethe, I return to the page.