“I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”
― William Faulkner
I love poetry. I am taking a great class about poetry. Here is what I have learned.
Poets need to possess two talents: one is imagination, the other is a mastery of language. There’s really only one reason that poetry has a reputation for being so “difficult.” Poetry demands your full attention and won’t settle for less.
It’s not like a novel, where you can drift in and out and can still follow the plot. Great poems are brief, intense love affairs whose memories are meant to last forever.
Aside from its demands on your attention, there’s nothing too tricky about reading a poem. Like anything, it’s a matter of practice. But in case you haven’t read much (or any) poetry before, I’ve got a short list of tips that will make it more enjoyable.
Lesson One: If you don’t make room for the experience, you probably won’t have one.
A great poem is a slow-building tour de force that sounds fresh and different every time you hear it. Once you’ve gotten a taste of the really rich stuff, you just want to listen to it over and over again and figure out: how’d the poet do that?
Lesson Two: Follow Your Ears. It’s okay to ask, “What does it mean?” when reading a poem.
Lesson Three: Read It Aloud. If you’re embarrassed, read the poem in the faintest whisper possible. Do whatever it takes, because reading even part of the poem aloud can totally change your perspective on how it works.
- Don’t Skim. Unlike the newspaper or a textbook, the point of poetry isn’t to cram information into your brain. I can’t repeat it enough: poetry is an experience.
Understanding poetry is like getting a suntan: you have to let it sink in. Each line of great poetry is loaded with ideas and emotions.
- Be Patient. You can’t really understand a poem that you’ve only read once. You just can’t. So if you don’t get it, set the poem aside and come back to it later. And by “later” I mean days, months, or even years. Don’t rush it. It’s a much bigger accomplishment to actually enjoy a poem than it is to be able to explain every line of it.
- Think Like a Poet. Go through the poem, one line at a time, covering up the next line with your hand so you can’t see it. Put yourself in the poet’s shoes: If I had to write a line to come after this line, what would I put?
Poetry is about freedom and exposing yourself to new things. In fact, if you find yourself stuck in a poem, just remember that the poet, 9 times out of 10, was a bit of a rebel. Poets try to make the reader look at life in a completely different way in a few short, powerful sentences.
Some of my favorite poems written in the trenches to elegies for the dead, these poems commemorate the World War I. The horror of the war and its aftermath altered the world for decades, and poets responded to the brutalities and losses in new ways.
My two favorite poems:
“Nineteen-Fourteen: The Soldier” By Rupert Brooke
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
“In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, May 1915
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Story behind “Flanders Field”
During the Second Battle of Ypres a young Canadian artillery officer, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed on 2nd May, 1915. An exploding German artillery shell landed near him. He was serving in the same Canadian artillery unit as a friend of his, the Canadian military doctor and artillery commander Major John McCrae.
As the brigade doctor, John McCrae was asked to conduct the burial service for Alexis because the chaplain had been called away somewhere else on duty that evening. It is believed that later that evening, after the burial, McCrae began the draft for his now famous poem “In Flanders Fields”.
Dreamers By Siegfried Sassoon
Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.
I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.
Along with Wilfred Owen, Sassoon was among the most celebrated of WWI poets and one of the sharpest documenters of what Owen called ‘the pity of War’. Sassoon even played an important role in helping to inspire and encourage the taut style of Owen’s poetry. This sonnet is not his best-known, but it’s a moving depiction of the longing the ordinary soldier felt for home, his loved ones, and the normal life he’d left behind.