Reading Poetry

One of my New Year's resolutions is to read more poetry, to improve as a writer but also to better understand the world of poetry. Each poet creates his or her own rules for a poem - some are commonly agreed upon, in standard forms like a sonnet or a haiku or a villanelle.

Others are discovered inside the work itself, so each poem becomes like a puzzle where we search for rhythm, for understanding, for connections between words, for meaning, with the poem revealing itself at each new reading, over and over, changing its resonance at different times in our lives, as our own experiences and understanding shift and change.

Some poems seem to give everything in their first reading, to speak open and true about an emotion we have all felt but could never put into words; the connection is instant. Others appear dense and forbidding, making us work to experience the words, gradually revealing themselves like the layers of an onion, skin upon skin, until we reach its heart and the ultimate satisfaction is in our perseverance.

It's probably the latter type that can make us think of poetry as difficult, this, combined with our first experience of poetry in school, as a tortuous unravelling of convoluted words, constructed by some literary fiend. I often wonder if the resistance to poetry is the memory of feeling stupid when confronted by a poem in the classroom setting; the discovery that such a small thing, written in our own tongue, could be so impenetrable. None of us like to feel stupid.

I remember, in fourth year at school, a group of us pupils challenging our English teacher for an explanation of 'The Red Wheelbarrow' by William Carlos Williams - mere nonsense to our lumpen fourteen year old minds. He fed us a line about the colours red and white relating to Communism, that left us slack jawed with bewilderment and, though I now strongly suspect he was pulling our legs, it certainly made me think of the poem differently from that point on.

The emphasis in the classroom is usually on discovering what the poet meant, when they wrote and arranged the poem in a particular way. I'm inclined to think this is the least useful way to understand a poem - the poet writes to explore his own ideas and experiences and, as such, the poem belongs to the writer only while he writes; after, it belongs to the world and we each discover it in our own way. Do we understand a poem better for knowing it was inspired by his wife, his dog, his love of spaghetti? Do our hearts twinge and synapses fire from his use of iambic pentameter, enjambment or metrical foot? These technical aspects can help us to understand a poem's construction, to appreciate its craftsmanship but not to love; they are the means, not the end. For the reader, the visceral experience comes before the intellectual and to love a poem, it must show us something we recognise as true.

How does this work? If the writer writes only for himself, how can his words be equally true for a housewife in Minnesota or a construction worker in London? One of the key ideas at work in poetry is translating the personal into the universal. A poet may write of the details surrounding the death of a child - a very specific experience, which the reader may not share - but in documenting this experience, the poet explores the idea of loss, one we can all relate to; we measure the truth of the poet's experience against our own, recognise its authenticity and connect. In this way, a poem gives deeper expression to our own lives. And if our appreciation never goes beyond the simple act of recognition, that's OK.

Ruth Padel talks about the fear of poetry in her book, 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem, which began as a series of articles for The Independent on Sunday. She talks of how we love to be confounded when reading mystery novels and crime thrillers - we want to be led down blind alleys, fed red herrings and thrown off the scent until the final revelation. We revel in the journey of discovery the writer takes us on in the story, yet we resist the very same complexity when presented as a poem! Perhaps, the difference is that a poem doesn't always provide a conclusive ending; we are challenged to answer the questions it poses for ourselves.

If we think of a poem as a purely visual thing, it is more akin to a painting than a novel. With a novel, we cannot know what comes next until we turn the page, mystery is in its physical nature. The poem, however, stands alone on a single page, can be viewed all at once, yet must retain enough power and mystery to make you want to look again. Compare this to the Mona Lisa, a small oil painting, on public display for anyone to see, yet the enigma of her smile has held men enthralled for centuries. Do we resent her for not explaining herself? Do we resent Da Vinci?