That poetry is not a larger part of our cultural conversation is not entirely surprising. Poetry has gotten a bad rap as something to be picked apart and analyzed rather than enjoyed for its beauty. We’ve been taught to probe poems, criticize them, and kick them around a bit, and we’ve been taught that all this poetry dissection is somehow good for us. But analysis is cumbersome and steals the joy of poetry. Rather than scrutinizing poems to death, we should be enjoying them.
Because they already know that it means
stopping and without stopping they know that
beyond stopping it will mean listening
listening without hearing and maybe
then hearing without hearing and what would
they hear then what good would it be to them
like some small animal crossing the road
suddenly there but not seeming to move
at night and they are late and may be on
the wrong road over the mountain with all
the others asleep and not hitting it
that time as though forgetting it again
I suggest you take a moment to read the poem again, this time out loud. Don’t feel silly; poetry is an aural art. The poem kinda rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? There’s a lot of music here, especially in the beginning. And not to minimize the importance of the poem, but hearing the words read out loud almost trumps the need to look for meaning. This poem just sounds good. (Of course, its meaning is also poignant for this essay.)
One of the tricks that I’ve learned when it comes to poetry is that it really isn’t about analysis. Not many poets sit down to pen a poem because they hope that someone somewhere down the line will take the time to read and reread their poem dozens of times in order to interpret (or misinterpret) every nuance and meaning. That’s not the point.
Many of us, if not all, were introduced to poetry in an academic setting. It was probably sometime in grade school when rhyming was still considered cool. Just getting the rhymes was the fun part. And being silly helped, too (remember Shel Silverstein?). Later on, though the writing of poetry was still creative and often fun, the reading of poetry was equated with pretension, cryptic symbolism, and men who lived a long, long time ago. Poetry units were something to survive, not something to enjoy.
My poetic education began when I started filling my journals with poems, an occupation that kept my teenage self locked in my room for hours each night. From there I dipped my toe in the pool of postmodern and contemporary poetry, mostly with books from the library. My high school literary education avoided twentieth century poetry at all costs while the novel, of course, was revered.
When I got to graduate school where I majored in creative writing with an emphasis in poetry, it was full-on immersion. And I loved it. Though analysis was still the goal, it was a different kind, emphasizing both craft and historical context. We wrote poetry, read it, memorized it, and recited it. Poetry readings were a dietary staple. The shift away from understanding poems purely in an academic sense came as I heard more poetry read and recited. It was transformational.
The thing about hearing a poem read out loud is that there isn’t time to break the poem apart into deeper meaning. What you have are sounds and phrases and images that hopefully resonate with your soul. A well-crafted poem should make you feel. This is why poetry is good for you. It’s like eating a delicious meal or spending time with a loved one or praying – you should always walk away from it renewed.
Wallace Stevens wrote, “The purpose of poetry is to contribute to man’s happiness.” Dana Gioia adds, “Aesthetic pleasure needs no justification, because a life without such pleasure is not one worth living.” Pleasure, happiness, beauty – these are the reasons to love poems and to listen to poems.
Of course, live poetry readings are the best place to hear poetry. Nothing beats hearing a poet standing before you read her own poem, or recite someone else’s from memory. But if you find yourself living where readings are seldom held, there are plenty of recordings to listen to online. The Poetry Foundation’s podcasts are a great place to start. Look further on the web site for more poets reading poems. YouTube is also a good place to look, if you’re willing to sift through what’s there. Two other sources I recommend are The Caedmon Poetry Collection: A Century of Poets Reading Their Work, a collection of audio CDs, and Poetry Speaks, which includes both audio and printed versions of the poems.
The key is to turn off your critical mind and simply enjoy whatever poems you read or hear, for that, after all, is what the poet has always hoped for you.