Thursday, March 15, 2012

Prose, Poems, and Pirouettes on Pin-Heads

I like books. I talk about them, think about them, buy them, and occasionally even read them. As I've grown older, my tastes have evolved, and I'm happy to report that they've become more varied. I was always one of those children who was happy to read the back of cereal boxes, and now I am an adult who is happy to read the back of cereal boxes, if nothing else is available.  

Like any self-proclaimed reading enthusiast, I should appreciate fine writing, and seek it out. I should privilege quality over quantity and substance over structure. I should enjoy stories well told, whether short or long, real or imagined, popular or critically acclaimed.  

I should, and I do.

But like many others of my kind, I struggle when it comes to reading poetry.

Years spent in high school and undergraduate English classes have seen me decoding poetic forms and structures. I've read Wordsworth, Keats, ee cummings, Langston Hughes, Carl Sandburg, Gieve Patel, Agha Shahid Ali. I can recite fragments from 'Xanadu,' and 'Ode to a Grecian Urn.' I can exercise judgment in reading a poem - I have a sense of what I truly appreciate, and what I only admire. This is the kind of familiarity that breeds neither contempt, nor an easy confidence. Instead, it should breed a happy medium -  a comfortable acquaintance with a literary form.

And yet it is always volumes of poetry that gather the most dust on my bookshelves. I've deliberately stacked collections by great poets by my bed, and persistently failed to read them. Part of this reluctance stems from the way we grow up thinking about poetry - as something abstract, abstruse and impenetrable. It also stems from the way we are taught poetry. In  their eagerness to analyze technique, teachers end up dissecting poems. And Hindi teachers are particularly guilty of imposing 'morals' on poetry, forcing students to extract profound and politically correct world-views from even a paragraph of verse. In sum, we learn how to take poems apart, but not how to marvel at them as wholes. And although I've been lucky enough to read wonderful children's poetry by Roald Dahl and others, the truth is that favorite poems don't populate our childhoods to the extent that favorite books do.

All of this means that as an adult, I approach poems with a certain wariness and trepidation. I'd be delighted to enjoy them, but I expect to be confounded by them. It's easier to just opt for something less mysterious and treacherous - books, websites, magazines, newspapers.

But the truth is that poems allow words to do things, and things to be done to words, that no other form can. The brevity, the compression of meaning into 40 or even 400 words, the non-negotiable demands of an acrostic or a haiku - all of these combine to create a tension that in turn encourages  trickery and beauty. The best kind of creativity is born of precision. And the best poems are the ones that turn pirouettes on pin-heads.

Whether it is Yeats speaking in and of fairie, Rilke describing firs holding up an inky sky, Shelley recounting a half-remembered dream, Hughes taking on the grand themes of race, or even Michael Hulse talking about lizards and snakes - it is the poetic form that goes a long way towards transmuting these  many concerns  and types of content into something moving, poignant and possibly magnificent.

In my version of the ideal world, knowing all this would mean that reading poetry would come as naturally to me as reading prose. But the world and my reading habits are both less than perfect. After years of grappling and negotiation, I've read just about enough poetry to tell me what I'm missing when I don't. Sounds like the makings of a tipping point, and hopefully, I'm just a few pirouettes and pin-heads away from irrevocably tilting the scales.

1 comment:

kimi said...

try neruda -

its gorgeous, never managed to dissect it because its just so sensual..

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