Why you should: Read more poetry

I really truly try to read poems more often than I do. I buy poetry collections. I carry these collections in my purse in case I might find myself waiting somewhere alone for more than thirty seconds. Sometimes. Not always. But I have them. And I reach for them. And then I get distracted by an insect on the sidewalk. Or a snippet of conversation floating in the background. Or the made-up history of the neo-punk couple walking across the street.

I feel guilty about this lack of discipline, even though I likely read more poetry than the average North American. My guilt is rooted in this: I am a writer of poetry. Poems have always been my preferred output, and they are relatively rarely my literary choice. I used to believe, as many young writers do, that reading too much poetry would stifle my creativity and somehow deform my developing voice. Which, of course, is poppycock. Far from being damaging, reading good poetry is a humble reminder that every single thing has been written about a thousand times over and the best you can hope for is a slightly new arrangement of words. If you’re very lucky, you might discover an underused metaphor to exploit. Creative isolation only leads to unreadable drivel and a sense that you’re among the best poets of your time. But because I am aware of all this, I should be reading as much poetry as I can get my hands on as often as I can get my hands on it.

The truth, however, is undeniable: poetry is hard. Even when it’s short and simple and charming, it demands cognitive space that I don’t often believe I have. Understanding and enjoying a poem requires a mental state that is out of phase with the movement of life. Which is why I think we need it more than we know and why I don’t bother with it often enough. I’ve let my mind become flabby with too much prose, and it doesn’t like the exercise of trying to understand four lines of good poetry.

But putting in the effort to find good poems and reliable poets is usually rewarding. Poets notoriously look at people and emotions and events cockeyed. And then they share their cockeyed vision in the fewest words possible. They can tilt and jostle you, then guide around the house looking into a mirror that’s pointed at the ceiling. It can be incredibly liberating to stand on your head, even if it’s only for a few lines in a year.

I am hopeful that I can find a larger place for other people’s poetry in my life. I do have my favourite poems and poets, and I would like to keep discovering them. Discovering more. Sharing them and encouraging others to discover and share. Because if I’m not promoting and supporting other poets, I can’t complain that no one is promoting or supporting me.

5 thoughts on “Why you should: Read more poetry

  1. Hi Jess,

    Agree so much with this entry – I’ve been reading your stuff for a while (not even sure how I found your site) and I really enjoy it.

    It’s rare I’m taken aback by someone’s writing, so cheers for putting it out there.


    1. Hi John. Thanks for the kind words and encouragement. I’m slightly addicted to putting my writing here, so I think I will continue for a while. Unless someone decides to conduct an intervention. :)

  2. I agree, although I’m not sure why poetry is seen as difficult. I find a good poem easier to read and enjoy than most anything else. Even when they are hard to understand, the process of reading and rereading until they reveal secrets is one of the joys I find in poetry.

    1. I think you’re proving my point, Paul. I don’t know a lot of people who like to read and re-read a piece of writing until its secrets are revealed. Either that or the people I know were never taught the joy of discovering the secrets of poetry. You are clearly one of those rare people who like to ruminate writing rather than swallow it whole in large pieces. And no one could accuse you of failing to support or encourage the spread of poetry in the world.

  3. Yes, you’re right, we have pointed our language-lens at all the words of history, have measured meaning, tempered tempo through each and every focal point of uttering, have coughed up all the habitual I Love You’s and committed all the confessional journalings and jottings that ever there’s room for on this earth, but in the final stitch, as in the love letter in which the lover deploys the rhythm method (I do not think ‘you’, I simply make you recur), I have nothing more to tell you, save that it is to you that I tell this nothing, and thence: “why do I turn again to writing”. I am a word processor. (And I am reminded of the work by Lindsay Seers, who, in placing specially cut pieces of light sensitive card between her teeth, and using her lips as the aperture and shutter, becomes a camera, ingesting the images of the world around her).

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