Last year I began my first ever course in prose and poetry and I have to admit: it has been incredibly difficult for me. I seem to always draw a blank when I have to explain what this so-and-so stanza means or what this person's character really is. And that is why I come to this group. Could it be true that I just can't read poetry? I love to read in general (give me a 800 paged one anyday) but this poetry is causing a problem. Reader's block you can call it. Do you have any suggestions on how to approach this problem and how to gain a better desire to actually learn poetry? Thanks for all your help!
Becky, who right now is reading Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray
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I don't believe that you are incapable of comprehending poetry, but rather are reading like traditional literature since you love to read long novels. Poetry is VERY outside the box (in most cases). Look up elements of poetry and familiarize yourself with how it is written and the basic mechanics of it; theme, meter, etc. This will help you with the building blocks of reading poetry as learning grammar helps you write.
Poetry is generally about reading between the lines and seeing what the author REALLY is trying to imply. Think of it as abstract art. Poetry is like the Picasso of literature.
Some poetry can be very difficult, especially modern poetry which tends to be very "poet" dependent. I have always found this to be the case with poets like Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell ... although some of older poets (Emily Dickinson, for example) has some poems that I have no clue about.
Poetry is the most "condensed" of the major literary forms; a novelist has as many pages are required, a playwrite a little less, and most poets a LOT less. At various times in history there have been manditory "form" demands, although these are not as required in modern poetry. The poet has to take an experience/insight, and express it in a very limited space. Part of the joy of reading poetry is seeing how this compressed form works out. I always thought Coleridge's "definition" of poetry helps a lot: "The best words in the best order." The really great poems have something important to say, and they say it in a way that "better" than any other.
My advice would be to find poems that speak to you and enjoy the way the poet has put the words/images together. Unless you have to do it for school, don't worry about the poems that don't speak to you; there are many that will.
Gray'sElegy is a good example of this. His exploation of the value of the individual, whether lowely or kingly, is done in words and images that are most memorable. It is perhaps most famous for one stanza:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour:-
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Sometimes poems like this are difficult because the word order is not what we expect, sometimes because of the demands of meter or rhyme. LIke most things, the more you read, the better you'll get at it. But don't expect to understand all poetry; I've been reading it for many years, and still don't get some of it :)
Thank you both for your feedback, it has helped me very much, especially TIMBRADY's last sentence: ". . .I've been reading for many years, and still don't get some of it." I must realize that I haven't been reading poetry for very long and it requires a lot of experience. I also must realize that I am not a dunce for not understanding a couple stanzas (yes, that is how I was feeling the other day). And lastly, I need to read poetry I am attracted to outside school; I haven't yet found that certain author but in time I will. Wish me the best of luck!
Becky, who is almost done with Gray's work mentioned above. :)
Have you read any Robert Frost? It's an easy read, very accessible, and many works are thought provoking. It might be helpful to start here with works that are culturally and historically close to our own, and broaden out from there. Here's one of his I like, and the only obscure reference is from the Bible ("They shall beat their swords into plowshares...") Enjoy!
The Objection to Being Stepped On
At the end of the row
I stepped on the toe
Of an unemployed hoe.
It rose in offense
And struck me a blow
In the seat of my sense.
It wasn't to blame
But I called it a name.
And I must say it dealt
Me a blow that I felt
Like a malice prepense.
You may call me a fool,
But was there a rule
The weapon should be
Turned into a tool?
And what do we see?
The first tool I step on
Turned into a weapon.
Can that get any easier to understand? I can figure out that passage easier than interpreting the Instant Messenger lingo! I think I'll look into Frost, thanks for the recommednation.
Becky, who is now reading A Man's a Man for A' That by Robert Burns.
Another poet that you might enjoy is Mary Oliver. Here's just one example of her work, called Some Questions You Might Ask
Is the soul solid, like iron?
Or is it tender and breakable, like
the wings of a moth in the beak of an owl?
Who has it, and who doesn't?
I keep looking around me.
The face of the moose is as sad
as the face of Jesus.
The swan opens her white wings slowly.
In the fall, the black bear carries leaves into the darkness.
One question leads to another.
Does it have a shape? Like an iceberg?
Like the eye of a hummingbird?
Does it have one lung, like the snake and the scallop?
Why should I have it, and not the anteater
who loves her children?
Why should I have it, and not the camel?
Come to think of it, what about the maple trees?
What about the blue iris?
What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?
What about roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?
What about the grass?
I was just telling my students this morning on their first day of the semester that I will never claim to understand all poetry. I still do not "get" some poems. What I love about poetry, though, is that it can be interpreted in so many ways! I learn something new about poems through my students each and every semester. The more you read poetry, the better you will be able to understand it, in my opinion. Poetry must be read multiple times, unlike other genres, which can be read once-through for comprehension. Good luck to you!
Like math, poetry is one of those subjects that people love, hate, or are completely indifferent about. For those who love its art, creativity, sound, and feel, poetry is a pleasure. But for those who, on their own, would rather have a root canal than try to figure out iambic pentameter, it can be torturous.
With that said, poetry can be adapted to (again, just like math). It requires a shift in thought, and a willingness to undertake the subject initially.
Looking over the list of poets that others have suggested, allow me to offer you a more contemporary author whose work can be interpreted both literally as well as figuratively: Rodney Jones. His simple, earthy poems are plainspoken enough to be understood by the masses, but contain elements and devices that English teachers love to talk about. His volume, "Elegy for the Southern Drawl," is definitely a must-read.
In my opinion, poetry communicates rather than tends to make itself 'understood'. I would like to remember T.S.Eliot's famous comment that ' genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood '. Poetry is the purest and the most abstract of all literary arts. Primarily it's all language and extremely author-specific. Words & phrases are connotative rather than denotative, and the language is 'maximally deviant'. Auden has called poetry 'memorable speech', but why is it so memorable? Is it because of the lexical/semantic/syntactic deviations? Because of foregrounding/over-determination? In any case, there is always a surplus meaning, for example, the following line from Eliot's The Love-song of J. Alfred Prufrock:
" I have measured out my life with coffee-spoon".
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