One of the many treats of my brief stay at St. Andrews in May was meeting Josh Richards, Assistant Professor of English at Palm Beach Atlantic University and a doctoral candidate at the University of St Andrews. We met quite a few brilliant and eccentric (usually Christocentric, curiously) characters in Scotland, most of whom I hope very much will be lifelong friends. I said to my wife Mary, though, that I suspect Josh Richards, with whom we shared a few memorable meals and scintillating conversations, will be the person we tell our grandchildren about.
I have asked him to write about poetry because it is the great lacuna or emptiness in my education and current reading. His time allowing, I hope very much Prof Richards will write a general introduction to the subject for Unlocking Press in addition to poems and critical essays already in the queue for publication. Without further ado, then, a brief piece about reading poetry that he calls:
A Diversified Diet
Today, I write to you to suggest that you broaden your reading diet to include poetry. Before you roll your eyes and click off to other worlds, let me clear up a few things, and I think my request will seem quite reasonable.
1) I am not saying that you should quit reading novels or that you should read the sort of ponderous novels that you imagine literature professors like me read. In fact, I am not arguing that a majority or even plurality of your reading should be poetry. Less than five percent of your overall reading being verse would be fine. That’s a couple poems for every novel—is that so much to ask, now?
2) When people think of poetry, they tend to hold three contradictory definitions in their minds at once. That poetry is a) Shakespearean sonnets in Elizabethan English, b) Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and c) a load of gloomy twaddle where people murkily recapitulate diary entries i.e. Confessional Verse. I am not suggesting that you read any of this stuff. I’ll make suggestions at the end of this essay.
3) Another thing that keeps readers from poetry is they feel that they do not possess the esoteric knowledge to properly appreciate verse. Now, I am not going to lie to you and say that the formal aspects of poetry (properly called prosody) are not every bit as eye-wateringly technical as music theory. However, for the average reader, such knowledge is also utterly unnecessary. Let me use an analogy. My roommate in college and I both appreciated complicated guitar music; he was an amateur guitarist, and I would not know which end of the instrument to hold. He would talk endlessly of the palm-muting or sweep-picking on particular parts—I just thought they sounded cool. Even though I couldn’t appreciate it like he did and parts I considered “pretty nice” may have been jaw-dropping to the expert, it didn’t keep me from listening and enjoying. So it is with poetry. Though you may not know an iamb from a trochee, you can still read verse with both profit and delight.
With those standard objections are out of the way, let me tell you why reading will be an enjoyable experience. As a passionate reader myself, I don’t feel presumptuous in suggesting that you read books to experience pleasure in the story in its totality i.e. characters, plot, etc. Poetry offers an entirely new dimension for stories. It doesn’t tell the same stories in a more “literary” way; it’s terrible poetry even to try. The way stories in verse are experienced is so different from the experience with prose that there is an entire different vocabulary for it. As someone who loves stories, you should read poetry because it offers new tales and whole new ways to experience them. To this end, let me enumerate two key ways that poetry tells stories in a different way with some examples.
The first difference between the stories of novels and poetry is in the way they generate catharsis. Novels work like sedimentary rock; there is a gradual accretion of emotion and experience through extensive character interaction. The climax of the novel or series may coalesce to a single scene or phrase but the effect requires an immense amount of lead up to generate that effect. “Albus Severus Potter” is just a name, but the reader’s emotional response to it is thousands of pages in the making.
Generally, poems are like igneous rock, congealed fire. As necessarily shorter, they have to rely on surprise and insight. All good poems surprise the reader with either their content or the way they phrase familiar ideas. On the other hand, surprise is comparatively rare in novels—the entire mystery genre is based on attempting to do so in a form not generally amenable to it. Let’s consider an example that many of you may know, E. A. Robinson’s “Richard Cory.”
Oh, and for maximum effect and to experience the beauty poems offer, you need to read all of them aloud. Just stop at the relevant punctuation and ignore the line breaks. Nothing else is required.
Whenever Richard Cory went downtown,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
If you had not read this before, you may need to go back and read it again—poems like novels reward rereading. The ending is as carefully foreshadowed as any novel—notice that they “looked at him,” he greets them, but there is never any indication that they spoke back, and the narrators states that “he was everything / [t]o make us wish we were in his place.” It doesn’t say that they actually wanted to be in his place, despite what Simon and Garfunkel sing. Even with all this subtle foreshadowing, it’s far more surprising and offers a different kind of pleasure in the story’s denouement than a novel with the same basic plot might.
The second difference is that while poems generally cannot create the kind of enveloping, populated worlds that novels have, they can create pleasure in stories without them. A pleasurable novel without characters or plot is a rare bird, indeed. Yet, narrative poetry is a relatively small part of the poetic universe as it requires a separate gift for creating engaging characters and plots that does not necessarily come included with poetic powers. Still, even in more general discussions, there is much that the average reader can enjoy. Consider the following short poem by W. B. Yeats:
No Second Troy
Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?
Here, we have the wonderful surprise of the opening line, and even without any knowledge of Yeats’ circumstances, this poem speaks indistinctly to a character or scenario. Some of us know all too well just what Yeats is speaking about, and this is conveyed in a way that a novel never could.
There is a third difference in that poems are often sad—but this isn’t a simple topic, I’m afraid, but let me baldly assert that reading sad poems is invigorating and actually helps those suffering. This will have to wait for another discussion, but one that I’m happy to do.
That’s the thing, though—novels and poems offer access to different experiences, so those who love stories should read both to maximize their aesthetic pleasure.
Suppose, now, that I have vaguely convinced you that reading a poem or two couldn’t hurt. Let me offer some suggestions as to how to go about it. I advise starting with poems written between 1850 and 1950. Before that and the language differences are likely to hinder comprehension. After that, and it is very difficult to pinpoint works and authors worth your time. Let me throw out a few names to try: E. A. Robinson, A. E. Housman, W. B. Yeats, Richard Wilbur, and Tennyson. Bartleby.com has whole collections by them available, and you can browse about—Wikipedia-surfing between the poets and those who influenced or followed after them is quite effective as well. It may take some time, but look, and you should find something that strikes your fancy. If what you read doesn’t strike something in you, move on.
There’s a lot of stories out there to be found—Poetry is its own universe, and one well worth exploring. This talk here is only an attempted introduction. There’s so much more, and I would show you, to whatever extent I can.
As ever, we welcome your responses and questions. Ask away, and if John Granger doesn’t run me out of town on a rail, I may return at some juncture to talk about poetry further, and no, that’s not a threat.