Recently on my Facebook page, someone had posted a quote from George Carlin: “Don’t just teach your children to read, teach them to question what they read.”
It reminded me of what I think about reading poetry. As a child, I was a reader instinctively; I loved reading. You could often find me perched on my favorite oak tree limb with a book in my hand.
However, I had to learn to question what I read. While my ear may be naturally tuned to the music of poetry and the joy of reading, there came a time when I had to have a more analytical approach.
Most of us know another reason to read is to learn.
Too often, it seems to me, as an audience of readers and listeners as well, we aren’t very demanding or analytical about what we read or hear.
I think in particular of broadcast media, especially radio, where any and every word can be used to defame, shame and startle. Don’t pause to weigh what was just said by our favorite guru. So thinking of us as an audience, how much are we to blame for the lack of an analytical approach?
How I approach poetry helps me answer this. The poet W.H. Auden writes: “As readers, we remain in the nursery stage as long as we cannot distinguish between taste and judgment, so long, that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a book are two: this I like, this I don’t like.”
Auden continues in this vein suggesting literary works require a more discerning eye.
Personally, I am more at home with poetry where every word is essential to meaning.
I like to remember Robert Bly’s statement that words come with so much baggage, and he asks: Do you know how hard it is to pierce the heart with a word?
I often hear folks say they don’t understand poetry. They read four lines and quit. Like the radio listener, the reluctant poetry reader wants something “quick.” There is an unwillingness to take time to reflect and think about a line that might have taken a poet days or even months to get right, as in a Jane Hirshfield line: “Large moon the deep orange of embers.” Think of the image, color and shape given to us by this poet.
Poet and essayist Norman Ball thinks the blame for difficulty in reading poetry must, in part, be leveled at the audience. “Even the most engaging preacher must contend with lazy congregants. For too many, difficulty is a tiresome abomination, a code to be cracked; really, they want their poetry fed to them in bite-sized morsels.”
He suggests readers want something more like a sound bite instead of appreciating that “poetry should strive for the lonely promontory; stake out the oblique leisurely stroll, the unhurried voice of truth.”
Where has our liking for the unhurried voice of truth gone? We must be deliberate, look hard at our own process. I keep returning to poetry as an example. I might not understand a poem at first reading, but I will stay with the poem, savoring words.
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God./It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
The sounds, the images, the language in these first two lines from Gerard Manly Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur” pull us into the poem. Poetry reminds us of our need for truth and beauty. Poet Mary Oliver writes: “Poetry is one of the ancient arts, and it began as did all the fine arts, within the original wilderness of the earth.”
Poetry cries out for “the unhurried voice of truth.” It cries out for a word to pierce the heart.
The lazy takes the word of the broadcaster, the columnist. The active listener pauses. The active reader parses the baggage of a word, is a member of a discerning audience who listens and thinks and reads in order to say the exact word. That listener and reader live in the wilderness until the search for honest truth is done.
Libby Bernardin, a former newspaper reporter, lives in Georgetown and teaches poetry workshops for Coastal Carolina University’s lifelong learning program.
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