Don't Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems
“[S]ome empowering concepts and more than a few compelling arguments should you decide to approach Don’t Read Poetry . . . with an open mind, a gracious ear, and a loving heart.”
In Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems, Stephanie Burt attempts to answer our questions about poetry and, in doing so, might have also succeeded in answering the most pressing questions poets have about the rest of us, mainly these:
With poetry being as ubiquitous as ever, easy to share, to memorize, most poems requiring little time to read and no equipment external to our bodies necessary in order to enjoy, “Why don’t more of us read more poems? Why do some people care so much about poems that baffle the rest us? Why do the same people often loathe poems others like? Are poems from five hundred years ago really the same things—can they work on us in the same ways—as poems by living authors now? Do all sorts of poems work the same way? Have they always? How can the poems that are out there all deserve the label “poetry” when they seem so far apart?”
By breaking down the truly important elements of poetry—not the ones relevant to poetry as form, but of poems as emotional entities designed to delight, to inspire thought, to accompany feeling, to express, to document human experience—Burt might just have here a book well-equipped to change the status quo, to make an actual contribution resulting in more people enjoying more poetry, not only as a cultural or intellectual exercise, but as a human practice, something we do daily for our own well-being and enjoyment of life.
Those elements are: feeling, character, form (though never by itself, without feeling and wisdom), difficulty, wisdom, and community, and they are born of the belief that what we need to have with poetry is a lifelong love affair, as personal and intimate as any relationship in our lives:
“The right poem for you may not make you more like me; they can, however, change you for the better or help you become who you are, who you want to be. They will also give you something else. “ No one listens to poetry,” as the modern poet and cult figure jack Spicer wrote. And yet, Spicer showed us a line break could change everything—'No / One listens to poetry.’ This book will give you the chance to be that one.”
Along the way, she acquaints us with broad swath of poems, deciphering them for us, sharing the keys to enjoying them and demystifying the tools by which we may want to try our hand at writing ones like them. Her poetry choices are unexpected and well-matched to her arguments, and there is a lot that is new here in comparison to other books about the enjoyment and understanding of poems.
It also helps that her narrative voice is that of a friend, as Burt assumes the role of a coach supporting us in our quest to find the right poetry for us, thus becoming the ones we’ve been searching for when it comes to poetry’s power to make our life in community, as part of the society of humans, better.
And there is no judgment against you if you are in the “not a fan of poetry” camp. But there are some empowering concepts and more than a few compelling arguments should you decide to approach Don’t Read Poetry . . . with an open mind, a gracious ear, and a loving heart.