I think that many people are not alone in thinking that they can’t understand poetry. I believe lots of people feel that way. There are many people who truly feel and believe that they don’t understand poetry, further that they can’t understand poetry, and that poetry is something best understood by particularly intellectual people.
And yet, I believe that nothing can be further from the truth.
Ignoring for a moment the distinction between high poetry and low poetry, it is important to realize that verse and versification have long been part of many cultures and language communities. I think that is also important to realize that poetry, or rather the idea of poetry, is very much a mental construction on top of the bare naked reality of verse itself.
What do I mean by this? Well simply put, verse is part of language. Verse is a way of arranging words. Versification and prosody, rhyme and meter, to whatever degrees they can be found in modern poetry, they are matters of language. Essentially matters of language itself. Prosody evokes things that can be felt, a beat. This can be perceived and felt without any sort of sophisticated intellectual training.
Here’s a proof; ‘Mary had a little lamb it’s fleece was white as snow, and everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.‘
That line of text was metered and it had rhyme to it. I trust that no great heights of intellectual speculation were necessary to understand. It was about a little girl, named Mary, of whom a lamb was quite infatuated. Dig it?
All things in this world are characterized by heights and lows, and stuff in the middle. So too with poetry. Poetry can ring bells on monasteries on top of Mount Parnassus, rake the coals at the bottom of the valley of Jahannam, and sell breakfast cereal on the telly.
I think that poetry is often presented as something intellectually high, refined and sophisticated. But poetry can really be as simple as ‘Mary had a Little Lamb‘.
While verse and poetry can be separated, and typically are nowadays, the two share a close, more ambiguous relationship which, aforetime, was tighter.
For poetry to have a significant cultural role, it must be authentically part of the culture. High cultures are almost by definition matters of elite, often imperial, patronage and support. This means high cultures obey standards that are artificially maintained; typically reified standards drawn from the basis of some old hoary thing dug out of the closet, quite mummified, and stuffed in full regalia in front of the people.
The maintainers and advocates of ‘high culture’ may seem to over-protest. High culture typically has some sort of basis in the broader culture it is found in. Often, however, the connection is extraneous and non-essential connection. Someone somewhere has to maintain it like a difficult and moody orchid, sensitive and needing constant tending lest the delicate thing keels over pouting and rolling its eyes.
I won’t assert that all high culture is just extraneous to a people’s realities. Far from it. But at a certain point you sometimes seem to have at hand something that was once a bit more living and spunky, but long since extremely refined to the point of the life being sucked out of it.
Do remember, much classical music was at one time pop music. This is something older than the ‘Pops orchestras’ that are part of urban higher cultural establishments in the Anglosphere today. Mozart in his age was a bit of a rock star. So too, Ballet once had copulation as a theme. I’d use the F- word but someone reading this would have a hissy-fit. Ballet, or rather the theatrical dances that eventually became ballet, really could be almost pornographic in theme, once upon a time.
In a word, if you go back two or three hundred years ago, you would see that – in the West anyway – quite a bit of what people believe today to be high culture was part of the lower middle culture of that age.
Let’s leave alone the theme of decadence – and there was a time not so long ago in which many critics believed Tchaikovsky and Wagner were decadent composers, and avoiding an observation I once heard Seyyed Hossein Nasr make, in which he asserted in the middle of class that classical music after Bach had essentially lost a good deal of its higher intellectual grounding, there is a simple fact that humans have a tendency to over-romanticize the past. How we view the arts, poetry included, is part of this.
I’m sympathetic here; being a guy who rarely felt at home in his century much less than his decade. But part of trying to develop a historical consciousness, a feeling for history, is developing the ability to see things of a past age as they were in there mundane glory. Chamber pots, iron and flint fire-starters, plagues, child whores, summary executions in the middle of the street, and all.
That was all a tangent. The question is how did that tangent relate to the question at hand? Well, let’s tie it to the point. In order for poetry to be something alive and vibrant, part a living culture, it has to be something that is not in museums. It has to be something that is inside of people’s hearts and on the tongues. For this to be the case poetry must be understandable by people broadly speaking, not just a recondite erudite few sitting around patting each others’ backs..
This does not mean there is no room for high and difficult poetry. Take Geoffrey Hill, the Oxford poet laureate, or T.S. Eliot, of whom Hill is a contemporary heir. Or take Frederick Seidel. These three people, among others, are certainly near the height of the twentieth century’s formalist and aristocratic poetic establishment. Throw in Ezra Pound as well. Each of these poets is somewhat difficult, challenging, and formalistic. In a word, marked by a type of difficulty that requires some intellectual aptitude to tackle with.
So what. Each of those poets wrote a large amount of verse that simply requires the type of active imaginative faculty that your average teenager has, to navigate. In other words, you don’t have to be an intellectual to read T.S. Eliot, and be struck by his imagery.
I think this is a sign of successful poetry. Even if it seems to be over your head on some level, mainly because everyone around you keeps saying that it is, it can still move you as long as you understand the words.
I think these things can be overcomplicated. If you can understand ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ then you have the tools necessary to apprehend poetry, to feel poetry if you hear it or read it. This is because you have the linguistic tools to viscerally feel poetry, which is what we’re talking about if we use words like ‘move’. Something that moves you does something kinetic to you, like push, shove, punch, caress, engage in frottage with, or kiss you. It’s a matter of the type of movement, and its intensity.
Verse, and most good poetry even ‘free verse’ ends up to some degree using verse-like elements even unconsciously on the poet’s part, uses rhythm and timing in speech. Verse makes you feel things, ‘beats,’ and this is powerful. Rhythm is powerful.
Verse is not equivalent to poetry. But verse and poetry spring from the same mother’s loins, and were probably wrapped around each others’ umbilical cords en utero. If you can feel the effects of verse, then you have the tools to get poetry. Just relax and don’t psych yourself out, thinking that you can’t get it.