Great spirits now on earth are sojourning;
He of the cloud, the cataract, the lake,
Who on Helvellyn’s summit, wife awake,
Catches his freshness from Archangel’s wing:
He of the rose, the violet, the spring,
The social smile, the chain for Freedom’s sake:
And lo!–whose steadfastness would never take
A meaner sound than Raphael’s whispering.
And other spirits there are standing apart
Upon the forehead of the age to come;
These, these will give the world another heart,
And other pulses. Hear ye not the hum
Of mighty workings?–
Listen awhile ye nations, and be dumb.
– John Keats, Addressed To Haydon, 1816
I never got poetry. When I was in elementary school my younger brother and I collected a binder full of our own attempts at poetry, but the only goal was to write simple, silly verses that rhymed. Apart from thoroughly enjoying complex rhymes, I never understood the draw of poetry. Even in school I never understood the enjoyment of poetry and the basic concepts involved didn’t make me excited. I couldn’t force iambic pentameter to mean anything on paper and I was without a passionate poet, so it bored me thoroughly. I was never really sure what to make of free verse.
Now, a decade later, I’m starting to really think there might be something I missed in this poetry stuff. I mean, I always assumed it must truly interest many people, but I wasn’t one of them. After realizing that so many people I respect were either heavily fashioned by poetry or were poets themselves, I have become somewhat determined to invest myself in understanding its enjoyment.
The three things I’ve come to understand about poetry thus far are that it is best read slowly, aloud, and indulgently.
Perhaps what I mean is that, in my experience, poetry is only enjoyable when it is paired with a slow lifestyle. When I was a child I assumed it was simply about rhyming. In school I never understood how the more complicated terminology explained any enjoyment. Now I am starting to realize that the poetry itself lies in the audible flow of the words.
I’ve always greatly appreciated prose. A witty or profound sentence full of large or interesting words is sure to be a delight. Now I’m starting to realize that poetry carries a similar intoxicant which is meant for sipping. Poetry is for re-reading, for memorization even, both skills that seems to have mostly fallen out of vogue. Memorization for pleasure rather than duty.
I have started slowly with the mostly free verse of Wendell Berry. His wonderful prose requires slow reading, and the transition to his poetry is a smooth one. From there I have begun to dabble in Keats, and I hope to eventually build up an appetite for modern poetry like Elliot and the old epic poems like La Morte D’Arthur, Spenser, and Milton.
My goal in this busy world is to slow down, so I think poetry is all the more worthy a pursuit. Like Keats says, if we slow down enough to take it all in, perhaps we will be able to stay quiet for a bit.
If you love poetry, please tell me why, and by whom.