Why Read Poetry?
Many people approach writing with a rather cavalier "no sense, no fear" attitude.
"After all," they ask, "how tough can mastering the written word be?"
Answer: Very. So tough, in fact, that most cultures, including
many advanced ones, never managed it.
"Yes, but I already know the basics of writing: grammar, spelling,
punctuation, syntax. How tough can writing poetry be? After all, it's just writing."
Poetry involves writing just as figure skating involves standing up.
If you have spent more than a few days in a workshop
environment as a new poet you will have heard the advice:
"Read a lot of poetry!" Along with "Show, don't
tell!" this is undoubtedly the most common advice given
to neophyte poets. Indeed, the only slight variation on this
theme comes when experienced sources specify:
"Read a lot of modern poetry!"
"But why should I bother to read poetry?" you may ask.
"I am here to write poetry and to have it read by others, not to read the stuff myself!"
The problem with the first part of the statement, "I am here to write poetry",
comes in the second: having it read by others. They won't.
"Why not?" you might ask.
For the same reason that, unless it is your child out there on the
ice, you would much rather watch the magnificent Midori Ito than a first time figure skater.
"Wait a minute. Are you saying that I write
bad poetry without even seeing any of my work?"
Are you saying, without seeing them skate, that a first
timer is likely on par with Midori Ito?
"I'll have you know that there are those, including
some from outside my immediate family, who like my poetry as it is."
Good for you! Now imagine how much more they will like it once
you know a few nifty, crowd-pleasing techniques. Without such tools at your command
you may soon be regarded as the rodless wretch standing on the riverbank trying to catch dinner by
screaming "Here, fishie!"
Bear in mind, too, that most novices try to write for (and resonate with) people who are most
like themselves. In this case, that means writing poetry for people who
don't read poetry.
Without reading a lot of poetry:
"Well, what difference does it make what kind of poetry I like to read if I don't read poetry? Duh!"
- You won't know that "good" and "bad" even exist. You might delude yourself into believing that it is "all a matter of taste".
Do you actually believe that an experienced poetry reader cannot spot a glaring qualitative difference between your work and
Shakespeare's? Or Cohen's? Or Heaney's? Or Garcia Lorca's?
- You might never learn that there are subjects and perspectives beyond your own fascinating self.
- Your ungainly attempts may end up being the closest thing to poetry you'll ever encounter. That is just sad.
- You won't know what poetry you like as a reader.
Because you are the world's first line of defence against bad
poetry. Your poetry, in this case. As a writer you must be your own
harshest critic. You have to learn to read your work with some
"distance"--enough objectivity to ask yourself:
"How would a reader
regard this piece?"
As things stand, you cannot answer this vital question simply because (Duh!) you aren't a reader.
"So you think that reading a lot of poetry will make me a good poet?"
Far from it. You will also need to read about some of the basics of the craft.
Here are some suggested primers on technique:
'Poetry Handbook' by Mary Oliver
'The Poet's Companion' by Kim Addonzio and Dorianne Laux
'The Discovery of Poetry' by Frances Mayes
'In the Palm of your Hand' by Steve Kowitt
'Understanding Poetry' by Cleanth Brooks & Robert Penn Warren
'Sound and Sense' by Laurence Perrine
'The Redress of Poetry' by Seamus Heaney
Or, for a lighter approach:
'The Portable Poetry Workshop: A Field Guide to Poetic Technique' by Jack Myers
'Poetry for Dummies' by John Timpane
Here are some online resources:
Gazebo Poetry Lessons
The Poetry Free-For-All Blurbs of Wisdom
"Okay, so I read this stuff and then I'll be a good poet, right?"
Hardly. But if you do study the basics of this art form you will, at least, know what a good poet is. And what good poetry is. Years of
practice later you may, if you have the talent and drive, become a competent poet.
Or an exciting challenge, depending on how you view it.
"But won't reading all this stuff affect my style?"
Unless you accept skating on your ankles as a "style", you don't have one yet. A "style"
is something you will develop after you have mastered the fundamentals. Children don't speak
with an accent until after they learn a language.
"But I don't want to write like one of these stuffy, sterile academics!"
Then don't. Write like a non-academic. Write like a free spirit. A vagabond. A rebel. Whatever. But learn to do so well.
You owe at least that much to your readers. Agreed?