My relationship with poetry has been an evolution, one that truly began with memorizing Jack Prelutsky’s “I Found a Four-Leaf Clover” in fifth grade and has tumultuously progressed to my present untempered affection for it as a Hopkins freshman. Here’s a mini-history, just to give some extended context:
At age ten, I penned one of my first poems, entitled “Oh, Crappy Tree,’ about our short and stumpy Christmas tree that year. That was my first significant foray into the world of poetry. The following years were a mishmash of on-again, off-again flings with it: opening my sister’s old college textbooks and reciting 16th century poems in a British accent, reading some Poe in middle school, and reaching what I thought would be my poetry peak in high school with wildly gesticulated in-depth analyzations of Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop in English class.
Present-day me has an unabashed love of poetry, one that seems to consume my thoughts more and more outside of the classroom. Much of this has to do with my Intro to Fiction/Poetry Writing teacher this semester, who is a poet herself whose passion for it is palpable in each class session. (Side note: IFP I & II are pre-req’s for all Writing Seminars majors, a healthy mixture of both literary analysis and creative writing.) For her, no student’s interpretation is too zany, no poem too cryptic to deconstruct and relate to matters of the heart.
In class recently, she made some poignant comments in relation to our lesson on ekphrasis, poetry in response to another work of art. Frankly, almost everything she says is poignant to some degree, but these words resonated with me in such a way that I actually whipped out my notebook and hurriedly scribbled them down for future pondering.
“Poetry is not about being cute and pretty,” she said, “It is about responding to life.” I’d like to dedicate that quote to all the poetry naysayers (myself included, from time to time — we’ve all been guilty of this at some point), those who were turned off to the entire world of poetry after one confusing experience (probably this one ) or who assume that the point of poetry is to have the “antiquated Hallmark card” effect of this one.
While it can be tempting to expect an art form such as poetry to consistently be a thing of beauty, that simply isn’t so. Poetry demands a reaction, whether it be positive or negative or somewhere in between, an inexplicable level of emotion that has no signifier besides the poem itself. I think often times, we want the instant gratification factor in the art we view: the immediate wave of powerful emotion or the meaning of life incarnate.
If that is the sort of reward we seek in poetry, and if that is the way we seek it — with expectations only of the poem, not of ourselves — we will continuously be disappointed. Poetry requires multiple readings, multiple attempts to put together the pieces of even the most seemingly complete lines, the most predictable rhyme schemes. A poem’s meaning(s) lies on a two-way street between the poet and the reader, a long-distance collaboration that is intrinsically necessary for the piece to come alive. Likewise, poetry often reflects ugly truths about the world of the poet, like Langston Hughes’s experiences in a racist society, or even about the poet him/herself, like in one of my favorites by John Berryman.
Essentially, poetry is under no obligation to always be the literary equivalent of this:
Instead, it often reads something like this:
“We perceive — that is our gift as humans,” my teacher said, a pithy yet eloquent final remark that will stick with me beyond my time in IFP II. That sort of mindset that should guide us in reading poetry, using our powerful intrinsic capabilities to make connections with the various intricacies a poem has to offer. My teacher’s words will serve as a grounding reminder to me in moments of frustration, confronted with a piece of poetry or a work of art that doesn’t so easily fit with my analytical capabilities, or even with a situation that isn’t of the most pleasant nature. To go through life viewing perception as a gift, not just a side effect of being human — that is how to experience the world in all of its truth.