Poetry and Pleasure


By Joanne Epp

“I’m having a lot of fun reading poetry these days,” said the owner of a local coffee shop. He had stopped by my table to ask about the book I had with me (for the record, it was David O’Meara’s Noble Gas, Penny Black). Now, I know quite a few people who read poetry—but I hadn’t heard anyone say that before.

Those of us who love poetry for its own sake wish everyone could do the same. The fact that most people don’t read the stuff voluntarily is cause for frustration, bafflement or simply resignation. I have often heard people—intelligent people who read novels or non-fiction quite happily—say that they “don’t get poetry.” My unspoken response to this comment is that they must not have found the right kind of poetry yet. I do cherish the firm (if untested) belief that they could “get” poetry if they only found the right book, the one that would strike a chime of recognition in some way. They just need a way in, then they’ll be fine.

And why wouldn’t this be true? There is such a range of poetry out there, in such a range of styles and subjects, that surely there should be something to attract the reluctant reader. I picture those who “don’t get poetry” as being like a certain boy in my aunt’s Grade One class, who had absolutely no interest in learning to read. She kept trying and failing to arouse his interest, until eventually she discovered that he loved horses. When she showed him a book about horses he was suddenly eager to read.

This belief, as I said, is largely untested, but I do have one bit of anecdotal evidence in its favour: my mother likes my book. She has always been more comfortable with the rhymed poetry she learned in school, and it took her a while to get used to the unrhymed and unmetered poetry that I write. But several sections of the book concern people and events she knows well, and apparently I wrote about them in a way that rings true for her. The other sections, on the other hand, feel more opaque to her or simply are less interesting.

Reading a book of poetry because you know the writer personally or because the subject matter interests you is a perfectly legitimate way into poetry for people who don’t normally read it, or who, like my mother, are reading it in a form or style they aren’t used to. It’s been said now and then that most books of poetry are sold to the poet’s friends and relatives. This is sure to be true in some cases, and of course it’s a shame if the book never makes it beyond that immediate circle. The upside, though, is that acquaintance with the writer may prompt people to read poetry who otherwise would rarely touch it.

But then how do you proceed beyond the poetry that offers a point of easy access? Here, despite what I would like to believe, potential readers of poetry do run into real barriers. For one thing—as with any kind of reading—there’s our innate bias toward the familiar. With so many books out there, we tend to stick with what we know, or at least with what we have reason to believe we’ll like. (I know I do, especially when it comes to novels). And the fact that there’s so much out there is a part of the problem in its own way. If you want to move beyond what you know, where do you start? Even if you stick to some kind of accepted canon the amount of material is overwhelming, and the closer you get to the present day, the more there is.

Poetry readers don’t get quite as much help as fiction readers here. Book reviews, bestseller lists, radio shows and librarians’ recommendations give much more attention to fiction and, well, anything else besides poetry. Readers of poetry, in particular, really need the friend who will enthuse about favourite writers and nudge them toward books they might appreciate (and possibly have fun with).

There’s a more important barrier, though (and I’m indebted to Mark Yakich’s article in The Atlantic for nudging me toward this idea). It arises because reading poetry—that is, reading it in a truly satisfying way—requires the reader to do two contradictory things at once: do the work, and relax. They’re equally important, and each is difficult in its own way. Doing the work may mean the kind of thing one does in introductory literature classes, like looking up archaic or unfamiliar words, tracing literary allusions, recognizing mythological references—not every detail, but enough to let you read the poem without stumbling too often. But whether you’re reading sixteenth- or twenty-first-century poetry, doing the work means developing patience. Reading a poem, letting it sit a while, reading it again; taking the time to feel its tone and rhythm, letting it resonate, hearing its overtones. As Yakich puts it, trying to “see what world the poem creates.”

It’s hard to be that patient. It feels as if reading shouldn’t be this much work. And I say this as someone who does love poetry for its own sake–how much more of an obstacle will this pose for someone just beginning to dip their toes into the genre? And yet, while poetry isn’t necessarily unique in demanding this kind of patient reading, with poetry we lose more by not doing it. Because a poem communicates along several paths at once—through sound as well as sense, allusion as well as direct meaning, through the interplay of form and content—it rewards careful listening.

At the same time, along with this work, it’s important to relax: to take the poem in without worrying about getting its full meaning. If we still believe, deep down, that a poem has a particular intended meaning that the reader has to decode in order to get anything out of it, we need to loosen our grip on that notion. Sometimes we have to let ambiguities linger unresolved, and this can be a real sticking point for some readers. When I took an American Literature course many years ago it was the professor, of all people, who expressed frustration with Emily Dickinson’s elliptical language by declaring “She gives me fits!” As Sarah Klassen (quoted in an article by D.S. Martin) comments, “Many readers don’t understand that it’s OK simply to savour the poem, taste its words on the tongue, hear its music with the ear, feel the rhythm in the body, even if they don’t comprehend everything the poem has to say.”

Doing these two things at once is somewhat like playing an instrument or singing (I’m told it’s also a bit like playing sports, although I can’t personally confirm this). Not like the early stages of learning a piece; more like what happens when the piece begins to come together. Something clicks, and now instead of playing notes, you’re making music, and it’s possible to lose yourself in it without worrying about where your fingers have to go next. Paradoxically, it takes a great deal of concentration in order to let go like this—but when it happens it’s immensely satisfying.

I guess this is my wish for reluctant readers of poetry: to be willing to give it enough of an effort that this kind of immersion becomes possible. William Wordsworth, in his Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, has a bit of advice for readers (I’m paraphrasing here): developing a taste for poetry takes time, especially if you haven’t read much of it, so don’t make rash decisions. But at the same time, don’t be afraid to trust your own judgment.

The point, in the end, is to find poetry that attracts you, that’s absorbing and pleasurable—and here I’m borrowing from Wordsworth again. In the Preface he goes on at some length about the importance of pleasure, and states plainly that the poet’s task is to give pleasure to the reader. This isn’t something we’d say of poetry these days—it sounds too simple, almost superficial—but I think there’s something in it. That pleasure—or enjoyment, or whatever you call it—sparks the attraction that gets us to believe in what the poem’s doing, that makes us willing to go wherever the poem will take us. Willing to be angered, challenged, delighted, or saddened. Or simply awash in language.

Of course you can argue that pleasure isn’t the only point of reading poetry, but it’s a fine place to start. I’d dearly love to hear more people say they’re having fun reading poetry, because when something’s fun, you want to keep doing it.

One Comment

  1. Matthew Kreider
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    So refreshing to see “poetry” paired with “pleasure” in this piece. And that conversation? Exactly what I’d love to overhear in a local Winnipeg coffee shop.

    Because, for the record, “I’m having a lot of fun reading poetry these days,” too. :)

Post a Comment

Your email address is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


Joanne Epp

Joanne Epp is a Winnipeg writer whose first book of poetry, Eigenheim, was published by Turnstone Press in 2015.