Is Reading Poetry Hard?

Every now and then I read or see an article about why poetry isn’t read, isn’t relevant, or something along that line.  Criticism is often based on the idea that poetry today lives in a closed system.  It’s written by the academy within the academy.  Many poets are MFA’ers and we write bland MFA poems.  Poets today write poems that are deliberately on the obscure/artsy/academic side. I hear from people who don’t read poetry that it’s hard, obscure, opaque.

For my part, I understand where the idea that “poetry is hard to read” comes from.  There are poems that are easy to read within the canon, but reading a lot of those feels like you’ve just eaten a big bowl of Skittles.  Other poems are more challenging, even confusing.  A good experience can trigger a lifelong love of poetry.  A bad experience can spoil the whole thing.

My first high school assignment in poetry was a group project on Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago.”  My group got a “D.”  The poem didn’t make much sense to me, and the techniques for deconstructing the poems made even less sense.  The experience turned me off to poetry, especially modern/contemporary poetry, and set a  bad tone for my English classes for the next five years.  Still, I recovered.  I got an MFA in poetry, and still write.  I read somewhere in the neighborhood of about 2,000 poems a year or about 5.5 poems a day.  It’s not a bad number.  I’m sure other poets and definitely editors read more.  Some poets may read less.  It’s a safe bet I read a lot more poetry than the average American.

Poetry is, ultimately, as accessible as you want it to be.  Reading poetry is an experiential and cumulative activity.  The more you read, the better you get at it.  Like writing.  Like aikido.  Like tai chi chuan.  Like fatherhood.  The more you read and learn to really read, the more reward the experience.

When I started reading poetry again in college, I didn’t start in class.  I didn’t take an understanding poetry class until about a year after I started writing.  That first year, I read widely and randomly.  I read literally.  Without the need to write papers about the poems I was reading, my experience was more elemental.  Understanding the idea of the poem was in many ways less important for me than how they evoked as response, whether a tangent in my head or emotions in my gut.

As an example, I’ll use a poem that stayed with me for a long time, “What Brings Us Out” by Naomi Shihab Nye.  The poem opens with a man who had been abused as a child and who speaks for the first time in three years, how walking past a pumpkin patch breaks the silence.  To be honest, I learned some backstory to this poem because she talked about this poem in a class once.  At least, I think it was a class.  It might have been a reading.  In any event, it was a long time ago when she was a visiting writer at the University of Hawaii.  Anyway, the pumpkins were a reminder of an abusive episode, but they also brought him out of silence.  The poem brought out a strong sense of emotion from me the first time I heard it, and later when I actually read it on the page.

I have a great relationship with my father, and I’ve never been abused.  I don’t have any point of reference for that, nor do I claim any.  I have a pretty happy memory of being at a pumpkin patch with my parents, and it being a scene with a strong sense of nature as living, healing, and nourishing.  I had a strong sense of that power and could, at least vaguely, imagine the immensity of that power needed to pull this man out of silence.  More power than I had ever experienced.  It wasn’t a moment of empathy.  It was a moment of awe.  I’m still separated from his experience, but I had a distinct reaction.  I like poems that do that for me.  Not every poem does, but then not every poem will either.  Some click and some don’t and that’s okay.

Finding what works for you is important if you’re going to read poetry.  Finding that in the expanse of contemporary poetry is maybe more daunting than actually reading poetry.  But reading poetry is important.  Poetry is about living impulses.  Poetry is a little story mixed in with a lot of feeling.  Prose writing can be emotive, but often it’s in broader strokes than with poetry.  Poems want to trigger and distinct and intense reaction in people.

Writers are often told to write what they know–probably the most misunderstood rule in writing every.  But it is applicable to readers.  If you’re going to start, read widely and randomly.  Or read poems about something you might know something about.  Poets.org has a Poem-a-Day page that will send a poem (contemporary during the week and older/canon poems on the weekend) to your inbox every morning.  They are varied and wonderful.  The literary journal, Rattle, has a Poets Respond page where they post a poem on Sundays about a public event.  Reading poetry requires a bit of an investment, but much of that is upfront cost, which is time and reading effort.  It’s well worth the effort.

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