On Reading Poetry… and Writing It!

Inspired by tradition, not in thrall to it

Most of the content of this page was initially a comment responding to a query on my poem, On deciding not to marry a priest. On reviewing it, I realised that it laid out quite well my approach to poetry in general.

The original question was “Why do you use classic devices so much?” I replied that I used classic devices in this particular sonnet as it seemed appropriate to the register, style, content and context of the particular poem — to some extent, the material emerged from my subconscious already clothed in these devices. I pointed out that, given that I had published at that stage 11 poems on the blog, of which only two were sonnets, it seemed strange that the questioner thought that I “used classic devices so much” and that this might mean that I was a “traditionalist”!

I explained that I am definitely an admirer of the immense skill and craft evident in poems that have stood the test of time, but that doesn’t mean that I think the classic way is the only way. Many of my poems are quite simple in structure and in vocabulary. Why should the occasional exploration and use of traditional devices, amongst others, make one into a “traditionalist”?

Aspiring to artistry

In general, though, I do tend toward the view that poetry is an art form, and that true genius in art (as in other areas) is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration!

I firmly believe that everyone is potentially creative and that all art that expresses authentic emotion or perception is valid in given contexts.

I also believe that to deserve the public name of “artist”, the artist has a responsibility to educate herself to be able to interact with all aspects of the artistic tradition and to hone skills and develop craft to channel her talent and to increase its possible means of expression, so to merit the attention of a discerning audience.

This applies as much to poets as it does to musicians or visual artists.

Unfinished “authenticity” lacks power and authority

Personally, I don’t enjoy most of the rough, unfinished, confessional-type blurts that one encounters under the name of poetry, sometimes because I find them unsatisfying in their lack of depth, and sometimes because they irritate me with poor grammar and spelling or with non-ironic clichés, which reflect a lack of care and attention on the part of the writer (especially in the age of automated spelling, grammar and style checkers).

I understand that people for whom the latter register is normal or comfortable may feel both satisfied and mirrored by such poetry, but I don’t see why my own work should conform to that — this would remove from it my own authenticity.

The complexity and intensity of my own emotions and thought processes (as perceived by me!) require vehicles that can express both the clarity of a central thought and the ambiguity, subtlety and nuances of the layers of meaning and association that always surround every human intention.

The care demanded by deliberate structure (whether classic or modern, whether of rhythm or rhyme or syllable count or vocabulary…) provides one meditative way to create these vehicles.

Poetic attention serves poet and reader

I also think that the reading of poetry demands a different type of attention than does that of most types of prose.

The person who expects to obtain satisfaction from a poem by applying the same skills she uses to browse the financial pages, devour a beach novel or a magazine, read a technical tome, obtain information via Google or enjoy a comic book is simply misinformed as to the nature of poetry.

It is disrespectful to the poet and to the genre to read poetry lazily or quickly. Much worse than that, such an approach robs the reader of the feast of emotional and intellectual possibilities that are explicit and implicit in any well-crafted poem.

Understanding poetic vocabulary deepens poetic experience

There is also the question of poetic vocabulary, by which I mean more than word choice. If I want to understand a technical manual, I need to study to understand its terms and context. If I want to read Supervielle in the original, I must learn French. When I do, I am rewarded.

Poetry as a whole has a vast vocabulary of style and form and classical and archetypal references, the understanding of which enormously enhances the reading experience. Sometimes, what I already know is enough to enable me to enjoy the poem. If it’s a good poem, then, even when I don’t understand its narrative or its thrust immediately, something about it — its music, its images, its language — will fascinate me.

But if I want to plunder the full riches of the poem, then whichever skills I lack to comprehend it fully, I must learn. When I do, I am rewarded.

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