I am here to say that anyone who tells you that they know how to read poetry, or what poetry really is, or what it is good for, or why you should read it, in general, is already getting it wrong.
Stephanie Burt, Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems
Some people reading this read poetry. Some people reading this write poetry. I read and write poetry, as people reading this may be aware. Poetry sits at a special place near the top of our experience as individuals and cultures.
Everyone is entitled to write poetry, while others may say it is good poetry, it is bad poetry, or it is not poetry at all, whatever any of that means. Everyone is entitled to read whatever poetry speaks to them, whatever others may say.
If you write poetry, poetry belongs to you. If you read poetry, poetry belongs to you.
In her new book Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems, Stephanie Burt takes on these and many other matters concerning the reading of poetry. A brief excerpt follows.
From Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems by Stephanie Burt:
Of all the kinds of art that people make, poems are, or should be, the easiest to share, maybe even the easiest to find. They need not be read live, or on stage, or by their authors, or even aloud (though it helps); they require no musical instruments or playback devices. Some can be memorized; most can be collected, reprinted, copied out by hand, or shared via email; and most of them don’t take very long to read.
So why don’t more of us read more poems? Why do some people care so much about poems that baffle the rest of us? Why do the same people often loathe poems others like? Are poems from five hundred years ago really the same things—can they work on us in the same ways—as poems by living authors now? Do all sorts of poems work the same way? Have they always? How can the poems that are out there all deserve the label “poetry” when they seem so far apart?
This book tries to answer those questions. It gives not just ways to read poems but reasons to read them, and ways to connect the poets and poems of the past, from Sappho and Li Bai to Wordsworth to some poems being written right now. And it starts from the idea—which took me a while to realize was not obvious, or universal, or widely recognized in schools—that poems are like pieces of music: by definition they all have something in common, but they vary widely in how they work, where they come from, and what they try to do. Various readers like various poems for various reasons, just as various listeners like various genres of music, various artists, and various songs. And the same listener (you, for example) can care about different songs for different reasons, at different times in your life or even at different times of day….
Until about two hundred years ago the word could mean “imaginative literature,” anything made up, or not real, or not true in prose or verse. Now it means verse, or prose that feels like verse, or (sometimes) anything that feels elegant, moving, sublime, above-and-beyond, not quite of this world: athletes’ shots and politicians’ speeches and dance moves are said to be pure poetry, meaning that we admire their beauty or their sublimity but wonder if they have any practical use. Much-noticed and much-debated essays, going back at least two hundred years, with titles like “Can Poetry Matter?” and “The Four Ages of Poetry” (gold, silver, bronze, and iron), have argued that poetry is in decline, has long been in decline, because fewer people love Shakespeare or Dickinson or Homer or Robert Frost. Other essays, some with surveys to back them up, show that poetry is coming back, or never left: after all, look how many people now write it!
Look, too, at the communities that have formed, some within universities, some far outside them, around particular poems and ways to read poetry, from classrooms where kids love The Odyssey in new translations, to self-conscious avant-gardes in urban centers, to immigrant communities refreshing a heritage language and its verse forms. These readers and writers are not all reading the same poems, or reading in the same way, or for the same reasons. They’re not all reading the same kinds of poems, and they may not agree on what counts as poetry, much less on what counts as good poetry.
And yet some of them—some of us, many of us; not just we readers of poems but we Americans (since I’m American), we readers of English, of anything at all—are caught in a myth about what counts as poetry and how we might learn to enjoy and to read it. The myth says that poetry is one thing and that poetry matters to us, or should matter, for one big reason. Maybe it introduces us to other people and other cultures, opening up our minds. Maybe it makes us more authentic and opens us up to ourselves. Maybe it brings us together as a country or as a community; maybe it used to do that, but it doesn’t now, so poets had better change how we write poems….
I am here to say that anyone who tells you that they know how to read poetry, or what poetry really is, or what it is good for, or why you should read it, in general, is already getting it wrong. Poetry, the word, has many overlapping meanings, most of them about composition in verse; there are many such compositions, and many ways to write them, and many reasons to read them, and if you want to find or like or love or write more of them, the first thing to do is to start to tell them apart. Many people read poems for many reasons, and yours may not be your uncle’s, or your best friend’s, or your daughter’s, or your professor’s.
I started to write this book because I got frustrated with books that told their readers, and teachers who told their students, that poetry was one thing. Sometimes the readers and the students learned to love that thing; sometimes they tried it and decided that this one thing—this major poet (say, Robert Frost), this reason to read (say, mystery and the sacred), or this style of poetry (say, modern conversational free verse)—wasn’t for them. That’s like hearing Beethoven, or hearing Kendrick Lamar, and not getting into it and then deciding you don’t like music. There are other kinds of music and other ways to listen to music out there, and if you look and listen and ask the right people, you can probably find one that works for you.
So: don’t read poetry. Don’t assume poetry ever means only one thing, other than maybe a set of tools for making things with words, as music means a set of tools (beats, rhythms, harmonies, textures, instruments) for making things with sounds. Instead, find ways to encounter kinds of poems and learn different reasons to read poems, realized in various ways by various poems. In this way, if in no other, poetry is like the New York City subway (albeit in slightly better repair). The subway system is always running and can take you almost anywhere in New York, but not all trains run at all times, and each train goes only to certain destinations. In the same way, lines of poetry can take you to many emotional places and to many parts of history and of the world today, but each line of poetry goes only to certain places, and what line you take depends on where you want to go.