I was about 16 or 17 before I “got” the point of poetry. My mother (an English grad student) had invited me to come to an English conference with her, and the poet Andrew Hudgins spoke. I don’t know what he said or which of his poems he shared, but I suddenly realized that poetry can be a beautiful part of a self, that a poet is able to express feelings in words, feelings that I never thought expressible.
It was shortly after that that I bought the Norton Introduction to Poetry (3rd edition, 1984; the link is for the 9th edition, 2006) for a few dollars at a used bookstore. I’ve since browsed through it numerous times and always enjoyed the tutorial and anthology aspects of it: when I’m in the mood to think about poetry, it’s a nice fall back. In the last few months, I took the time to actually read most of it. (I think I skipped a total of about 50 pages in the 500 page book, mostly excerpts from long poems by Milton, Eliot, and Tennyson that I plan to read in full.)
My Introduction to Poetry
That English conference where I “got” poetry was not my first foray into the genre. I had, of course, participated in school assignments to read and write poetry.
I found two poems of mine in various journals from my childhood. I don’t recall what poetry I read at the times I was writing the poems below, but for me poetry had to be cliché.
Sonw [sic] is soft
sonw is neat
sonw is freasing
on my feet
On my ears
And on my face
Is every place. (3rd grade)
Winter Wonderland [excerpt]
The snow gently falls from the sky,
like feathers floating,
resting on the bare branches of trees,
and covering the ground like powdered sugar. …(middle school)
Feel free to gag.
Apparently poetry needed to be about winter, but maybe that is simply a reflection on the fact that I grew up in Chicago, where snow is prevalent for at least four months of the year. I do have some consolation in the fact that as I got older, I attempted simile and I stopped trying to force rhymes.
But all the same, as these amateur attempts may attest, I never felt an abiding appreciation for the genre. Poetry was painful to read and painful to write, even when it was about snowfall.
When I listened to the poet at that English conference, I began to understand that poetry can be more. And that “more” is what I like about it now.
The Norton Introduction to Poetry
The Norton Introduction to Poetry has two parts: half is tutorial and half is anthology. The tutorial part is my favorite. In various sections, the editor (J. Paul Hunter) describes the role of subject, theme, and tone; text (including speaker, situation and setting, word choice, figurative language, and structure); and various contexts. For each subsection, he shares at least one poem and discusses the particular aspects of that poem. Since I still struggle with some poetry and I am a beginner each time I approach it, I enjoy the tutorial aspect.
In the very beginning, Hunter puts into words what I cannot: the reasons why I like poetry so much. He says,
[Poetry] is an experience of words, and those who know how to read poetry can easily extend their experience of life, their sense of what other people are like and especially their awareness of personal feelings. … Poems provide, in fact, a language for feeling, and one of poetry’s most insistent virtues involves its attempt to express the inexpressible. … Poetry can be the mouthpiece of our feelings even when our minds are speechless with grief or joy. (page 1)
And that is why I enjoy this introduction and anthology of poetry. The only downside is that it is more than 20 years old now – I’m sure the updated editions have a better variety of poetry and a more detailed tutorial. All the same, even the third edition is wonderful for me. It helps me to understand poetry, and by extension, the rest of the world.
(OK, so I’m back to cliché now. Trust me when I say I am no poet.)
In reading The Norton Introduction to Poetry, I got some great samples of poetry from poets that I’d like to read more in depth. I will be adding them to my “poets to read” list and in the coming months I hope to read and study specific poets.
This is an extension of the poetry portion of my How to Read and Why project: in that book (which I still have not completed; I’m reading each work as I go), Harold Bloom shares his favorite poems. I feel I can read widely so I can likewise choose my favorites. This is a lifetime project, as I realize there are nearly an infinite number of poets on that ever-growing list.
Since April is National Poetry Month, I thought I’d participate by highlighting something poetry related every week, including nonfiction about poetry, a particular poet, or anthologies of poems. I’ve started a few books; we’ll see which get finished.
Poetry or Not: That is the Question
The first sentence in The Norton Introduction to Poetry is “People seldom feel neutral about poetry.”
From experience, I know that is true. Before that English conference, I hated it. After the conference, I was excited about poetry. There was no in-between.
What about you? How do you approach poetry? Do you like anthologies, or individual poets’ collections, or individual poems? What are you going to read this month in honor of National Poetry Month?
Or are you a member of the “not interested” category? Would you consider giving something (even just one poem) a try in honor of National Poetry Month?