David Orr has a very interesting article on poetry in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review; he’s reviewing a new book by Stephen Fry called The Ode Less Travelled, which, though it’s a terrible title, sounds like a great book, and I liked the review because Orr writes very sensibly about what it takes to understand poetry and why many people are a bit afraid of it. I’m guessing I’ll never read Fry’s book about poetry, but the review is good enough I’m tempted. Orr talks about how people come to poetry with unreasonable expectations; they expect “either to be awed by excellence or overwhelmed by the Raw Passion of It All” and instead are disappointed:
only rarely do lay readers experience poems as a cross between an orgasm and a heart attack; usually, the response is closer to “What?” or “Eh” or at best “Hm.” This doesn’t mean that other reactions aren’t possible; but such reactions generally come from learning what exactly is going on.
He goes on to say, “You learn what’s going on by reading carefully, questioning your own assumptions and sticking with things even when you’re confused or nervous.”
Orr is particularly good on what he calls The Fear — the anguished or icy reaction teachers get from students when asked to respond to poetry in class. General readers too often see poetry as unapproachable, difficult, impossible for the average person to get. And so they stay away from it or resent it.
I like Orr’s point that understanding poetry takes time and practice — I agree, at least once you get beyond the most immediately accessible stuff — and it takes an interest and curiosity and a certain self-confidence. Many students don’t have these things, and so give up before they’ve really tried and poetry remains off in its own world they’ll never willing venture into.
I’m not sure what a teacher should do about this, except maybe try to get students to build some confidence by rewarding their interpretive efforts even when they are a bit lacking. I’ve entertained some pretty unlikely interpretations in class simply because I don’t want to crush a student’s excitement at having begun to figure things out. I think, though, that students are alert to any hint of the idea that poetry can mean whatever you want it to, and they jump at the opportunity that idea offers to say whatever they want, but at the same time they despise the wishy-washiness of that stance.
I’ve known a lot of students who like to write poetry, but once they hear about poetry’s technical details, they disconnect from their personal experience with poetry and begin to feel The Fear. That’s too bad because if they could take their personal interest in writing poetry, no matter how bad that poetry might be, and use that energy to tackle the kind of poems they read in class, they’d learn a lot.
Orr says that Fry’s goal is to:
demystify the art without deadening it; to make it seem as open to the interested amateur as “carpentry and bridge and wine and knitting and brass-rubbing and line-dancing and the hundreds of other activities that enrich and enliven the daily toil of getting and spending.”
I like that attitude. Poetry does not require mystical insight or super-human intelligence; rather, while it requires experience and skill to grasp, those things are within the reach of anyone.