Why Do You Read Poetry?
Why do you read poetry? It’s not often I get asked this particular question, but it was posed the other night and I had to seriously think before I could answer. The most obvious answer for a budding poet is ‘to learn’, often young poets and new poets will be told (and furthermore believe) that by reading poetry they will learn all of the secrets to a good poem. The answer I actually ended up with was; because I like it.
This isn’t to say that one doesn’t learn by reading poetry – you definitely do. There are many different things to learn from reading poetry, most particularly for me you learn a sense of risk. When you write your own poetry you don’t want to take risks, you wonder if anyone will understand or if your obscurity will outweigh the beauty of what you’re doing. When you read poetry, however, you can see the risks poets take at every moment of their creation, and sometimes the single risk is that they put themselves out there and tried to be published. In the act of writing poetry we try all kinds of tricks and tools to keep our narratives grounded, our imagery fresh and inviting and our narration strong and vivid. We think we run out of ideas at many turns and it is the poetry we read that reminds us that; yes, we can actually use space to define our narrative. We can use anything we own to develop our poetry to its full and right extent, even if we are creating pictures from lines or writing poems in the form of prose. There are no wrong answers.
What I don’t do, and what I recommend you also avoid, is read poetry to learn. That seems contradictory, but I promise it isn’t. What I am talking about here is intent, when I pick up a book of poetry I intend to enjoy it, immerse myself in someone else’s language and go from there. Every poem I read teaches me something, whether it’s what to do or not to do, but I never ask the poem to teach me. I believe that if you open a book of poetry intending to learn how to write poetry, you’ll miss the core matter of poetry, the natural instinct and feeling which is tied to each poem. So focused on line breaks and where one word is places, which image was used, you miss what is being said and why it’s being said. You only get one time to first read a poem, one time to experience a poem purely without any prior knowledge of it, and wasting that is something terribly sad.
You may disagree – that is great! Having opinions about poetry theory is an important part of developing a place in your own poetry narrative. Not to mention, I love a good discussion.
I hope the next poetry book you pick up, however, is for the love of poetry and not the use of it. Happy reading!