Why read poetry? – 2/20/14

for Rose Latimer

1. When I was younger, I attempted to get into poetry twice. The first time was from frustration. Poems were hard, as it wasn’t clear where to start, let alone figure out what they meant. Why did I care? Nothing to do in school than try to feel smarter than everyone else, I guess.

I do remember in sophomore year of high school a class discussion of Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” It wasn’t a good discussion. Here’s the poem, if you want to try your luck:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Yeah, it’s pretentious. Snobby-sounding, like it requires accompaniment by a hundred dollar bottle of wine and Faberge eggs. At 16, what did I know? That the “Metro” was the Paris subway was new to me. I was told this was “Imagism,” and I got that the rough idea was simply presenting an image and letting it speak for itself. I doubt the utility of this exercise makes itself felt.

But back then, I just thought it was neat. You could keep trying to interpret it, imagining different scenarios. Maybe the speaker was in a train, passing the platform. The faces would be indistinct, the blur of passing things by might resemble a flowery branch. That sort of works, but not really. It doesn’t seem to tell anything, and it doesn’t make full use of the details the poem provides.

So let’s try the details. The speaker observes a crowd in the subway, seeing their faces as one “apparition.” Those faces unite, but it’s something ghostly, perhaps even dead. Are they all wearing much the same thing? Going to and from work? If those things are the case, their natural individuality is buried – no, maybe flooded, maybe about to be washed away.

2. I read that poem around 16. Then I didn’t do anything with poetry until college. There was a girl I wanted to impress, so I started reading poetry to try and improve my writing. This failed miserably, but it introduced me to Yeats. Yeats’ “Aedh wishes for Cloths of Heaven” was an easy, eloquent, powerful read:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

I still think this is unmatched as a love poem. Of course, I tried to imitate it, struggling to craft sentences with as much emotion, and the result was a number of journals that need to be burned. But the exercise was not entirely fruitless, as I read much more of Yeats. It dawned on me that Yeats, through his words, probably had the ability to romance anyone, and in a way it was an utter failure: see “The Wild Swans of Coole.”

I kept going back to poetry from then on to see experience encapsulated. People took the time to record their experiences and thoughts in verse. It didn’t feel like they were trying to be clever or pretentious, not at all. What I thought they were trying to do was give us a moment, a recollection, worth thinking through and talking about. That giving them an audience could actually be helpful to me – that was an added bonus.

There’s a method for reading poetry I used to preach (see Shakespeare, Sonnet 73), but not so much anymore. All I want to do is listen and read carefully; Lord knows I need to be a lot more patient. I’ve been running into a lot of students lately who are eager to share their theories and views on the whole of things. I’ve been pretty good about listening to them, but I wonder sometimes whether they actually listen to anyone else.