Tuesday, June 15, 2021

How To Get Poetry (Part 1)

[I wrote this in 2019, and just decided to post it here. Then I made a follow-up post.]

Someone observed to me the other day that poetry does not seem to “land” for them the way that it does for me. I want to try naming at least one thing I think poetry lovers (whom I know) are doing differently than people who don’t quite “get” poetry.

I’m not sure there is one central thing, but if there is, my guess is that it’s a matter of approach.

Anybody reading this is familiar with reading in general. At the very least, you read blog posts. You probably read Tweets or Reddit threads. And you read books.

In all of these, we tend to be focused on what happens, or maybe what it means. The words we write, read, and speak are useful for communicating about events and states of affairs. If we read “the candidate won the popular vote, but lost the electoral vote”, we make an update, then move on to consider the implications. The phrase itself is immediately discarded, like the flesh of a juiced orange. That’s usually how language works.

But it’s not how poetry works. A very common way to prevent a poem from “landing” is to go in, gather info, and get out. You may not realize you’re doing this, even if you are, because it just feels like “reading”.

But it may feel like “reading, plus some other things”. I expect you can tell you’re approaching a poem this way if you recognize a background sense of searching, impatience, or frustration while reading, or if salient questions in your mind include things like, “What is this about?” and “What is the point?”.

I notice I’m delaying describing a better way to approach poetry. I’m delaying because I feel embarrassed. I feel as though I’m taking my clothes off to prepare for an arcane ritual I perform regularly, only today lots of people are watching, and they don’t necessarily know what’s happening. I’ll try it anyway. Here we go.

Poetry is intimate. It’s like a parent breastfeeding their newborn, or a husband comforting his wife with caresses after a loss, or the look of pride shared between a teacher and her favorite student during graduation. The way you would approach one of those situations is similar to how I think you should approach a poem, if you want to receive it as it was designed. Do not juice the words and throw away the rind.

The poetic experience is not one of updates or insights. Poems often ride on described events or on propositions, but they are not the stories they tell, and they're not the claims they make.

The sound of the words, the feel on your tongue, the dozens of associations an image might conjure for you, the felt shifts in your body, the rhythmic patterns, the emotions that dawn or ambush or flow, the way they superimpose, the moments when the pattern stumbles, the tiny pieces of sound or structure or concept that echo in later lines - these are what the purely poetic experience is made of.

And when you set out to read a poem… no, “read” is misleading here. Poetry is language transubstantiated in a chalice. When you set out to ingest a poem, to take it into your body and make it a part of yourself, you have to shift your mind out of its habitual relationship to language, and toward a state of extraordinary receptivity and participation.

Imagine that you are newly in love. When you wake up beside the one you love, you have the chance, for the first time, to watch them sleeping.

How does your mind move, in that moment? What allows you to rest your attention on the shape of their shoulder, the scent of their hair? What invites the full emotive force of your imagination, as you remember the time they kissed your palm?

If you can move your mind deliberately to that place, and let it rest there indefinitely, you are ready for poetry.