I keep thinking about poetry, and why for so many it is a special thing that they feel like they don’t understand. The more I explore it, the more that I feel it is special thing, but it is special not because it is difficult or obtuse, or because it is believed that it requires a special interpretator to make sense, but rather because it is a special way of experiencing the world, of knowing. I had great teachers. They never told me what to think of a poem, or what a poem meant, but instead helped unravel possible levels of meaning. It was training the brain to think in new ways, make new associations, to create meaning inside myself, rather than requiring the rote replication of some predetermined knowledge. Poetry becomes special because of the way it makes you think, not because of the way it tells you anything.
The term special means different things to different people. There is special-education, where retarded or developmentally arrested people go to school. There is special sauce, where the ingredients are a mystery that you are supposed to embrace as being somehow better than something clearly states its contents. These connotations rule in America. People are taught to hate poetry, and the people who write it, as somehow different, or special in a very pejorative way. Wordsworth claimed that poetry should be a “man speaking to men,” and though his shift in poetic diction was anything but democratic, the principle remains the same. Poetry should be for everyone; grasping it makes people special in the best sense of the term. It teaches you to accept and think in associative patterns, rather than be a slave to the literal view of a bleaker reality.
So now I’ve got that off my chest. You can in many cases lay out the best of poetry as if it were prose, and read it as you would any story. Tennyson is really good for that. But what really makes it work is the levels of sound, the music of the way that the words fit together. Poetry is meant to be read aloud. All this is my clumsy way of introducing a couple of bits I wanted to save. From the Nassr-L mailing list:
In Confessions, De Quincey prides himself on his own ability to read poetry, and praises Wordsworth as ‘the only poet I ever met who could read his own verses: often indeed he reads them admirably’. Richard Woodhouse also records an 1821 conversation in which De Quincey discussed poets and recitation. ‘On the Subject of reading Poetry’, he writes, De Quincey ‘observed that [John] Wilson’s Character of countenance is generally very lively; but this leaves him the moment he begins to read poetry; his face then assumes a Conventicle appearance, & his voice a methodistical drawl that is quite distressing. Southey mouths it out like a wolf howling. Coleridge lengthens the vowels & reads so monotonously, slowly & abstractedly that you can scarce make out what he says, & you lose the rhythm. Wordsworth sometimes reads very well.’
Poor Southey. Everybody always made fun of him. Byron called him “Mouthy” and this quote bears this out quite nicely. But the real meat of the matter is this: I just discovered that there is 22 seconds of Tennyson reading “Charge of the Light Brigade” online. He sounds a bit like the description of Coleridge, actually, but it might just be the recording. My favorite reading on Tennyson Page was Sir Lewis Casson reading Ulysses. I just can’t understand why people would find this poem difficult, though studying it of course increases the depth and complexity involved. You need to know the situation, and it’s outcome, to get a grip on the horrible irony involved in these words which are so often invoked as a battle cry, “to drink life to the lees.” Uh, Ulysses sailed off the edge of the world and died horribly. It makes the bravery a bit less, well, inspiring. In many ways, that’s what poetry is all about. Cut through the strange vocabulary (christ, that’s what dictionaries are for!) and you’ll find a “man speaking to men.” A simple story, nothing more, nothing less. Until you really think about it for a while.
Maybe that’s it. Most people don’t want to think that much.