Does poetry matter? Is there still an urgency when it comes to reading poetry? Do we thrive on its subtle, elusive presence? Or, can we survive without it? This is an old debate that never loses ground.
Stephanie Burt’s Don’t Read Poetry, Basic Books (May 2019)is a book about how we meet and read poems, discover their joys and preconceptions, from Shakespearean sonnets and other classics, to Instagram poetry and Pokémon characters. It is also a personal journey into the inner workings of poetry and a reframing of its bounty and delight in the eyes of the reader.
Like Stephanie Burt, I am a poet, though this is not something that I say loudly to everyone. Poetry is not my daily occupation, but it is my constant preoccupation; still, I refrain from sharing it. It is not that I am ashamed of it, on the contrary, I take great pride in the poems I have written and published. But I am rather uncomfortable mentioning that my poetry comes from a place of grief.
Given my resistance and most people’s reaction to poetry, it begs the question: Where does this tendency to omit or overlook poetry in our daily interactions come from? And, why do we think of poetry as either being elitist or cryptic?
I am Romanian born but write my poetry in English. I am the first poet in my traditional family and so I am an oddity. In my everyday life, I am a translator and an educator, both more manageable in terms of a suitable job for a woman of my background, where a female poet can often be ignored or jokingly tolerated. Apart from the sexist barriers, there is still something fearful for many in the way any poetry feels or sounds and the way it threatens to displace readers and challenge them in a manner they find unsettling. Many people are put off by the expectation that poetry comes with a set of rules or a level of comprehension that they might naturally lack.
When my father first heard me speak of my poetic tribulations—the rejections, the endless revisions and re-editing and the fickleness of the muses -he was confused. It didn’t fit the image he had of me. He candidly asked me where I found the time to tend to such concerns. I was a full-time, working mother and given my domestic duties, I must have been writing at nighttime. He was worried for my health and advised me to give up this ludicrous occupation. On top of that, when he read my poems, he said they were too intellectual for his taste. This is the case for one poet and hardly applicable to all others. But it is perhaps typical of the kinds of challenges that arise on the path for anyone becoming a published poet.
What I find intriguing is the perception people have of poetry and its purpose. In the introduction to her book, Stephanie Burt speaks of how easy it is to access poetry - its brevity, its ability to be read aloud, performed, collected, memorised - and yet, few people read it. She sets out to explain why people love or hate it and in doing so, comes up with arguments for liking poetry. She speaks of connecting past poems or poets to contemporary ones and addressing the cultural diversity of the world we live in and its assortment of tastes. Credit is given to the invaluable role translation plays in making the literary world accessible to a versatile, demanding, fast-changing crowd of readers. Poetry is meant to introduce us to other people, make us empathic and willing to connect, open us up to our inner selves, build communities, ignite revolutions, feed hunger, sharpen senses, help us, at least, come to a meaningful purpose for reading it.
But the fact is, poetry lacks a definite, absolute purpose. It is often about the journey it takes us on, without any promise, or need of knowing its history or technical terms. Poetry gives readers the freedom to find their own reasons and purposes.
To Stephanie Burt, such reasons make up the chapters in her book: feelings, characters, forms, difficulty, wisdom and community, each illustrated and justified with lines of poems and comments on her own poetic tastes. Does it help to look at a poem from these different angles? I believe it might. These entry points are meant to familiarise the reader with the intricacies of poetry and its mechanism of survival and failure alike.
In his book, The Hatred of Poetry, Fitzcarraldo Editions (2011) Ben Lerner, poet and novelist, wrote about how poetry failed by not keeping the promise to solve people’s concerns related to love, isolation, death, disappointment or meaning. This speaks precisely against the very purpose of poetry and how it is within each reader to find their own purpose in poems and to fail and succeed at their own pace and taste. No poem is bound to give each reader the same thing. Language, time, personal predilections - all these might shape the perceptions of one reader, while at the same time, delight or mortify another.
In Stephanie Burt’s words - “the right poems for you may not make you more like me; they can, however, change you for the better or help you become who you want to be”. Poems carry our own enthusiasm and apprehension, give us room to pause and return, reassess our beliefs. They make us frown, smile at language choices, ponder at lines breaks and allow us to actively inhabit their landscape.
A while ago, I started reading poems out loud to my father during our coffee meetings. At first, he seemed embarrassed and laughed them off, pointing to the futility of my gesture. Then, he stopped arguing and just quietly listened. He could not understand my poems, mainly because of the language barrier. Plus, it was a dislocation in the ordinary habits of our encounters. At 65, my father fully enjoyed his coffee routine, the chosen silent moments, his need to see me as something he could wrap his mind around. Poetry didn’t fit in. It made me potent and elusive, much like poetry. In Stephanie Burt’s words, it acutely pointed to “the process of removing something from a box, or of opening a gift.” My father was forced to rename and reframe his daughter. It left him with little that was familiar, and the entire process seemed strange, dislocating.
My father’s reaction gave me an inkling of the readers ‘puzzlement towards poetry, and the wish to abandon it because of its unfamiliarity. It compelled them to decide upon meaning, and the more a poem blurred lines between openness and closure, the more the readers experienced a sense of disruption in expectations. My father’s lack of comfort came from gender expectations and a traditional mentality, but he still harbored a dislike towards poetry. While growing up, he read detective stories to me and never once mentioned poems. I tried to lure him into reading Romanian poems, but he refused and called it a dying literary tradition. Could people not live without poems? They offer no significant help in managing life: it is not as if they were a life skill.
I could not change my father’s way of thinking, though something in the way I read -intonation, phrasing, musicality, cadence - brought tears to his eyes. I touched his hand and told him poetry had played its little, yet essential part: it had made him ask questions and engaged his curiosity. It had captured something vital: our ability to connect, despite the differences, and cut across the artificial lines we tended to draw around ourselves. My father smiled. Poets are dreamers, he said.
In her book, Stephanie Burt speaks of difficulty and the role it plays in the relationship we are trying to build with the poems and poets we read. She references George Steiner, literary critic, who identifies four kinds of difficulty. The second one is called modal and it refers to the literal sense of a sentence that it still hard to grasp because it might be “a joke, a trial balloon, an experiment, a piece of sarcasm”. This is how it feels when we are engaged in a conversation with a person we hardly know, and we find ourselves unable to read them. Modality fails us and we struggle to understand or respond in a sensible manner, fearful of embarrassing ourselves. Likewise, poetry requires a leap of faith into poetic possibility, form and content. A departure from the known self, and into discovering new hidden depths about the unknown self, an attractive kind of difficulty.
Take the perplexing words of Chelsey Minnis:
“ Sometimes I have to throw up and pass out in order to get to the next set of time increments. Because otherwise time forms into a hard migraine like a gumball, / I want to wear fluted sleeves and become like a darling person with appropriateness all around me…It is rough to be a seafoam wench”.
Here, language is a reckoning with the world, a bewildering manner of expressing desire in a visual, active voice that struggles to render emotion. Or anything else your wicked, wrought, innocent, flirting, evasive, attentive, scattered minds can read into these lines. Poetry is here to widen the space. More necessary and immediate than ever, awaiting.
At the end of the day, my father is right. Most people will have made do without poetry. The conversation on the importance of poetry has shifted from an abstract argument on form and content toward its function of portraying urgent social issues such as religion, race, immigration. Though poetry cannot heal or provide answers to injustice or atrocities, reading and rereading a poem can be a form of survival in a world where such things are rife. Poetry is a manifestation of the human voice, a promise of resistance.
To me, poetry it is a matter of expressing my femininity and beliefs alike, a desire to reach out to a no boundaries community, an attempt to strengthen a personal relationship and mourn loss by connecting to the world. In Stephanie Burt’s words, “ The soul comes out in the poem, and continues to sing ”.
So, does poetry matter? Well yes, it matters a lot.