Many readers grow stone cold when they see lines arranged on the page in the form of a poem. This might be because so few of us have had the experience of reading poetry with pleasure. And that is why Cam’s recent questions about poetry, questions answered just a day or so ago by litlove, make me think about what creates a poetry lover rather than a person who breaks out in hives at the first line break. I do like poetry, and as you’ll see from these questions, I think it’s because I was pretty much kept in ignorance of it for so long that, by the time I got to it, I felt like it belonged to me and wasn’t brussells sprouts I was forced to eat by some earnest parental person who just knew they’d be good for me.
1. The first poem I remember reading/hearing/reacting to was :
Before college, I had almost no exposure to poetry beyond nursery rhymes. Which isn’t as bad as it sounds, because no one ruined it for me by telling me it was good for me. Oh, there is something. Just this moment I realized that when I was about thirteen, I sat through six and a half showings of Romeo and Juliet (the Zefferelli movie). And then I went out and bought the play, and pored endlessly over the balcony scene where Juliet (who was actually Olivia Hussey, which is a nice name for a Juliet) says to Romeo (who was unfortunately named Leonard Whiting) “my bounty is as boundless as the sea…” At thirteen, I found that pretty racy, but it had to come with costumes and nice looking boys and a little bit of soft focus making out to really work.
The first poem that really reached me both intellectually and emotionally was Wallace Stevens’s Tea at the Palaz of Hoon, which ends: “I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw/Or heard or felt came not but from myself;/And there I found myself more truly and more strange.”
At the time, and still, this seems like as good a description of the poet as you could want.
2. I was forced to memorize (name of poem) in school and…….. The schools I went to as a child didn’t force you to do anything, which might be why I was woefully unprepared when I arrived at college and blissfully unaware that I wasn’t actually the smartest person on the planet. In college, I was required to memorize the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, which I loved, and part of Milton’s Lycidas, which I also loved. I don’t think I ever minded being asked to memorize anything poetic. But then I never had to memorize anything really stupid.
3. I read poetry because…. its power is different from anything else created with words. A good poem can get to you in a very short amount of time. Put another way, poetry is to prose as vodka is to wine.
4. A poem I’m likely to think about when asked about a favorite poem is ……. Wallace Stevens’s Sunday Morning.
5. I write/don’t write poetry, but………….. I haven’t written a poem in about two years. But when I was writing poetry, for a few years, I wrote a poem about polar exploration that I’m pretty fond of and one about cigars, which I also rather like. One thing I liked about writing poems was getting down a sensation, or an idea, or a moment using poetry as the medium.
6. My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature….. poetry is both easier and more difficult to read than other types of literature. It is easier only because a good poem reaches you more quickly than a novel. It is harder because I often can’t read more than a few poems at a time. Poetry is relentless in a way prose is not in much the same way that vodka kicks you in the gut a lot sooner than wine does.
7. I find poetry….. in Poetry magazine, in my writing workshop, in all the books I saved from college and graduate school, and the many more I’ve acquired since then, in the New Yorker, on advertising panels on the bus, and sometimes in my head.
8. The last time I heard poetry…. was at my Thursday writing workshop where there are several really talented poets.
9. I think poetry is like…. well, the alcohol thing has been made quite clear, I think. But here’s another good description, which also relies on the distillation metaphor, but perfume (not booze) is the end product of all that distilling. That’s because the metaphor belongs to Emily Dickinson, who probably wouldn’t have been drinking vodka. With anybody. Ever.
This was a Poet–It is That
Distills amazing sense
From ordinary Meanings–
And Attar so immense
From the familiar species
That perished by the Door–
We wonder it was not Ourselves
Of Pictures, the Discloser–
The Poet–it is He–
Entitles Us–by Contrast–
To ceaseless Poverty–
Of Portion –so unconscious–
The Robbing–could not harm–
Himself–to Him–a Fortune–
One last thing: I think these are very interesting questions, and ones that are helpful in thinking about how an understanding of poetry evolves (or doesn’t). If you are listed over to the right —— or you are reading this post (you know who you are!) and want to post about it, or leave a comment about your own experience, it would be lovely to hear your thoughts.