In May of 1944, the poet Anna Akhmatova gave a reading at the Polytechnic Museum, the largest auditorium in Moscow. It was her first appearance in the city since World War II, and the room was packed. The poems she read had rallied Russians throughout the war, and her voice had broadcast through the streets of Leningrad to steel the city to the approaching German Army. When she finally closed her books, she received such thunderous applause that Joseph Stalin asked who'd organized the ovation. The man knew power when he saw it.
If you grew up in America, it might surprise you to learn that a poet has ever had that sort of impact. Poetry here is best known for the simple, sentimental verses found in Hallmark cards and the lyrics of pop music. The word "poet" probably calls to mind some weirdo in a beret. And poetry's power to influence American politics is, at best, a fizzle--if you heard anything about the anti-Bush anthology Poets Against the War, then you listen to a lot of NPR. The truth is most Americans have lost touch with the best of what poetry is: a record of some of civilization's greatest writers--and wisest people--taking on the questions and emotions that define us.
Certainly, the world has changed a lot since Akhmatova. Time once devoted to reading books now goes to TV, movies, and the Internet. When people do read, most prefer to pick up something they can relax with like John Patterson or Augusten Burroughs. But one only needs to look down the aisles of inspirational books at Barnes and Noble to know that the search for meaning that has always driven the great poems still resonates. Classic themes like love, despair, life, death, and hope still infatuate us. Heck, you can find them all in one episode of "Grey's Anatomy." Yet the poems of faith John Milton wrote after he'd gone completely blind, the atheist Percy Bysshe Shelley's passionate explorations of a godless world, and Sylvia Plath's struggle just to hold her world together all go under-appreciated and under-read.
So why aren't we reading poetry? Here are some reasons I often hear that will probably sound familiar. Here, too, are some reasons to reconsider.
Reason 1: I've never understood it.
Poetry can be difficult. Learning to read Shakespeare is difficult, and I certainly wouldn't recommend anyone take on T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" without some guidance. But most poets are far more accessible than Eliot or Shakespeare. Also, it's important to note that your expectations for a poem should be different from your expectations for, say, a newspaper or a novel. A poem often has multiple layers of meaning that will unfold over a few readings--and it's important to give a poem that opportunity. It's a good idea to read a poem more than once in a sitting or go back and reread it over the course of a few weeks or even a lifetime. Remember that the process of exploring a great poem should be part of the reward. As Walt Whitman asked in "Song of Myself":
"Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much? Have you reckon'd the Earth much?
Have you practic'd so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?"
Reason 2: I can't get past the whole rhyming thing.
Rhyming verse can fall a little hard on the modern ear, which is why most contemporary poems are written in "free verse" with no set meter or rhyme scheme. Rhymes are a part of poetry's music: the rhythms and sounds of words from which a poet draws power. Like a great soloist or orator, a poet with a good ear can infuse what he's saying with emotion and immediacy. If you're reading a poem with end rhymes and they're bothering you, ignore the line breaks and try reading the poem as if it's prose.
Reason 3: Poetry is for angst-ridden teens, hopeless romantics and the aforementioned weirdos in berets.
Sure, you run into a few aspiring poets at your local coffee shop that fit this bill, but I guarantee you couldn't pick a practicing poet off the street. We're surprisingly normal. Just like you, we're obsessed with things like fantasy football and I Love New York 2. I was on track to be a doctor before I stumbled on poetry (yes, my parents were real happy about that one). That's not to say that your experience with poetry will be as all-consuming as mine, but for all that poetry has given me, I have no doubt that it has something to give you.
So how should you begin? I'd recommend you start with an anthology. You can't go wrong with the Norton Anthology of Poetry, which covers everything from medieval English verse to Bob Dylan. When you find a poet you like, buy a book of his or her work. Volumes of poetry aren't as daunting as the word "volume" implies. In fact, they're relatively small. And you can read through most poems in a fraction of the time it takes to finish a Sudoku. You should also check here each week, where I'll be posting a great poem as a blog. Think of it as a weekly cultural aperitif.