Damn, Poetry’s Hard

In Adam Frank’s recent article on NPR, the writer compares poetry to physics. He begins his discussion with T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, which is 434 lines. In other words, it’s long. For some readers, that length provides something to hold onto a bit longer. An author might claim that more space allows for them to create greater meaning. But for some readers, longer poems can be daunting.

However, length isn’t the only thing that makes certain poems more difficult for some than others. Why someone may not “get” a poem can be for many reasons. In Frank’s article, the writer interviews John Beer, poet and professor at Portland State University. Beer had this to say about the subject:

There are, it seems, as many ways for a poem to be difficult as there are for it to be a poem at all. For most people, a lot of poetry written before the twentieth century will be a challenge: the vocabulary will often be unfamiliar, the syntax may be more complicated than we are accustomed to reading, and allusions, especially to classical learning, abound.

As some of you may know, we have several different contributors on this blog, all of who write creatively in some way. And while I may not be a diehard Shakespeare fan, Amanda happens to be. I think Shakespeare is, well, Shakespeare. To some, he might as well be a God. But while cross dressing, star-crossed lovers, rape, and murder might make for some interesting reads, I’ve never been able to really “get into” Shakespeare. For me, Beer hit the nail right on the head. Like most English majors, I had to take a class on Shakespeare in order to graduate. I remember rereading whole passages several times before I felt sure that I understood what just happened. It’s the language. It’s unfamiliar to me, and I have never enjoyed reading pieces that require a dictionary or lots of footnotes to get through.

But that’s the thing about poetry, you don’t have to love everything you read. Even if it’s Shakespeare. Gasp!

I think the most important thing about being a writer, whether that writing takes shape in poetry or prose, is to read as much as you can. If something doesn’t interest you or if you don’t “get” it, there’s nothing wrong with you or the poem. Poetry isn’t simply an explanation or meaning wrapped up in a pretty bow; according to Beer, it’s a living experience:

You can live somewhere new for a while and still not have a strong sense as to where the best restaurants are, or find yourself getting lost on a regular basis. Poems are likewise to be lived with.


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