i’ve already written about my distaste for poetry as a teen. my mind wasn’t particularly open at 14. today though i am wide open, willing to revisit even the works of Shakespeare, which I loathed as a child, mostly because they were taught so poorly, i recognize now. i have enjoyed all kinds of poetry from the nursery rhymes of Christina Rossetti to the word play of Christian Bök’s Eunoia.
what i am looking for in a poem is to be surprised by language or imagery or a twist in the narrative. i like reading a poem again and finding it different, discovering something i hadn’t noticed before. sometimes one line or a single word will make me appreciate a poem.
many people are very closed to poetry of any kind and that has always been the case. i relate to that attitude because of my own close-mindedness. there’s nothing much to do for those who remain adamant in their unwillingness to try something new; however, there are those who are curious. the question is how to encourage and nurture this interest without shutting them off from the possibilities of poetry?
i remember being very excited when i first read e.e. cummings but being bored to tears by Eliot’s the Wasteland when we had to read it in some course when i was in my 30s, then reading the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and loving it, then recently going back to the Wasteland and finally being able to appreciate it. sometimes we are just not ready for some types of poetry. i think that’s ok.
another revelation for me was William Carlos Williams, discovered thru one of those Norton anthologies they make you buy when you take poetry in university. after that i began to explore, devouring my Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 2nd edition. and that is how i grew to love (some) poetry: by reading and being open.
and then there was Robert Priest. i’ve told this story before. in the early 90s, my ex and i went to something called the Ottawa Valley Book Festival at Roosters at Carleton. i think it was the first literary event i ever attended. i don’t even remember why i wanted to go. we didn’t know anyone and found ourselves sitting too damn close to the makeshift stage. Phil Jenkins, the host for the event, decided to begin as if it was the first baseball game of the season throwing out the first pitch, or in this case: books to the audience. he stared directly at me and i was afraid. he was going to throw the book at me. i was afraid because i didn’t want to look like a twit by not being able to catch the book, and also because he said it was a poetry book. it was “Scream Blue Living” by the first reader, Robert Priest. the book fell at my feet and the audience yelled out, “take it, take it.” blushing, i picked up the book. i enjoyed Priest’s reading very much and went home to read the book, which was brilliant and funny and contrary to what i thought poetry was: boring old-fashioned doggerel written by dirty old men or prissy spinsters. but this was different. a poem called “How I Cut My Hand” talked about working in a factory. i had worked in factories and had seen an accident or two there. i could relate.
when i was in high school and struggling with math, i used to complain that the teachers all loved math so they couldn’t really teach to those of us who didn’t like it and perhaps that’s the case with poetry.
when poetry lovers try to communicate their love of poetry to poetry haters, it never works. at best you get blank stares or the answer: “i don’t get it.” “How will you find beauty when it is locked in the mind past all remonstrance?”—William Carlos Williams, “Paterson”
it took me until 2006 when i took workshops with rob mclennan before i gained an appreciation for contemporary poetry such as Lisa Robertson or Steve McCaffery or even bpNichol for that matter. i hadn’t known that such poetry existed. i wonder if i’d been exposed to such at the high school level or early university level, whether i would have been more interested.
when i meet someone who tells me she loves poetry, i’m always a little suspicious. how can you love “poetry”? i love some, i hate some and i’m ambivalent about most of it. but there are people out there who are poetry natives, who have loved poetry all their lives. i am not one of those people.
i’d like to see an anthology for those who dislike poetry or who are suspicious and cynical about it. i’m not sure what the contents would be, but i believe that once someone has found a few poems they can engage with, they end up digging a bit deeper to find more. as long as they are never satisfied they will continue to dig.
i’d be interested in your recommendations for such an anthology. if, like me, you aren’t a poetry native, what was the first poem that made you realize you didn’t hate poetry and wanted to read more?