For the longest time I had a bias for reading prose instead of poetry.
Classic or “The Cannon”-accepted poetry was often too abstract, too dense, or too obscure for me to grasp. And I wanted to read, not be continually flitting my eyes between the words and the footnotes.
I preferred plot. I liked characters. I liked sinking my teeth into a novel or a play, immersing myself in another life for a month or maybe just a weekend, but certainly more than the few minutes it seemed to take to read a poem. A few high school poetry projects helped soften me, but I still never picked up a poetry volume unassigned. Epics (Beowulf, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid) bridged the gap some more because they struck me as on the fence between poetry and story. I fiddled with writing my own poems and read those written by my peers. I was, in a sense, coming around to poetry.
Then I was forced to dissect a Shakespearean sonnet ever which direction, backwards, forwards, and inside out for a whole semester in college. We were practicing different literary theories and interpretive lenses for an introduction survey course and while application is a good way to learn such tools, focusing on a single sonnet for that many papers felt like smashing my head into a wall on a regular basis. I’d put it tied with reading Tristram Shandy on my list of “horrible college experiences” (and I’ll bitterly admit that I did learn a few things from both projects).
After all that, I was pretty suspicious and sick of poetry regardless of format. Thankfully, my professors didn’t give up on me – or rather, they weren’t about to tailor their syllabus to my personal tastes. With exposure came interest and a new appetite. I devoured T.S. Eliot, lingered in e e cummings, read and reread William Carlos Williams, and probably annoyed my then-fiance with my reading aloud Gertrude Stein (because honestly, how else do you read her?).
I still tend to prefer a novel to dwell on in my free time, but I think of poetry as a nourishing breakfast before I begin a busy day. I especially lean on it when I’m actively writing my own stories. Reading poetry forces me to look at the world in a different way, to revisit the importance of word choice, order, and structure more intentionally than I do when reading novels. It reminds me how delightful and nuanced this crazy English language can be.
My last college semester, we read T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets. I’ve reread it so many times since that I’ve lost count. One passage in particular always drew me in. If I could, I’d just put the full set of four poems on my wall, but alas it would require a fairly large canvas, so I settle for just a part of “East Coker.” (More images of the painting and details on how I made it are in the gallary below.)
If you haven’t read The Four Quartets, please go do so. It’s in the public domain, so you can read it online if you’d like, but I highly advise reading it in print with a pen and your hot beverage of choice. It is amazing.
The painting is hanging in our apartment now, opposite the table where Nate and I tend to sit when writing. It serves as a nice reminder. Maybe the stories I write will never be published, maybe they’ll always fall short of my expectations, maybe no agent or editor will ever see anything in them, or maybe they will, but the books won’t sell or will get bad reviews, be called shoddy rehash of existing tropes. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Maybe I ought to worry less and focus on the trying, on the writing, on the sitting down with my laptop or notepad and getting the words out. Again and again, and again, trying to recover what has been lost and found and lost before.
Because the only way I can say for certain that my writing will go nowhere is if I give up trying.