"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

When reading poetry becomes a torturous activity

People often tell me that they don't enjoy reading poetry because they don't understand it. I usually tell them that they just haven't found the right poet to read and they should keep trying. Well, today I here to confess that I can completely relate to those poetry skeptics more than to my former self. Over the past several months I have started and set aside seven different poetry books, while only finishing one, and that was a painful experience. (See photo above.)

So what gives? Where and how did I get off the poetry rails?

First, I recognize that all poetry is not for everyone. I purchased No Fear Shakespeare's Sonnets several years ago in hopes that it would, with a little help, make the maestro's sonnets relatable to me. This book provides a translation to each of the sonnets in language one should be able to understand. I do understand the translations and after reading about twenty of them realized I am just not "into" Shakespeare's sonnets. Set that book aside.

Next up, I thought I would enjoy Rainer Maria Rilke's Selected Poems. And I found the 44 page introduction written by Robert Hass to be very interesting. But when I started reading the poems, translated by Stephen Mitchell, I was left feeling cold. Set that book aside, too.

Surely Robert Burns: The Scottish Bard would be more my thing besides this edition has pictures. I used to love reading the Philospher's Club series by Alexander McCall Smith where his character Isabel Dalhousie erupts into spontaneous poetry recitations, usually reciting Burns. Well, apparently one needs to be Scottish to understand Burns. I can't even pronounce many of the words even when I read them out loud. Mush. No good. So Scottish and English aren't the same thing?

Perhaps what I really need is a book about how to read poetry. I purchased Jane Hirshfield's Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World. I might not have been in the mood for such a scholarly work because I abandoned this one before the end of the first chapter. It started rather ominously so I should have been prepared..."A mysterious quickening inhabits the depths of any good poem---protean, elusive, alive in its own right." I have set this one aside for the time being but I vow to get back to it when I feel smarter. (Now I'm off to look up what the work 'protean' means.)

It is a long story, which I will only tell you over a hot cup of tea and a warm scone, but Pure Gift: The Writings of William O. Walker was unreadable for another reason than those cited for the above volumes. I couldn't read past the first few poems because of personal reasons. I had hoped the book would help me get past those reasons but the exact opposite thing happened: it reminded me of them. I only like the book because my father, who died just last year, wrote me the sweetest note inside the cover. I am keeping the book for that reason but I won't read on.

Poetry as an implement of torture. That is what it seems like these days.

Let me read easy stuff to get back into the swing of things. How about Great Poems for Grand Children, a large volume of poetry designed for grandparents to read to their grandkids. I expected "The Owl and the Pussycat", which is there, but not so much Shakespeare and Sandburg. I will finish this tome but will do so slowly. I should get out a marker and make check marks next to the poems I think I might actually want to share with my grandson when he is older. I doubt it is one in ten of them.

Lastly, two small volumes of modern poetry, one I finished and one I hope to finish. Whereas poems by Layli Long Soldier is fun because she explores all kinds of shapes and formats for her poems. Soldier is Native American and I wanted to read it to enlarge my understanding of her culture. It did help on that score but many, many of the poems I just couldn't tell what was happening. I think there was a bunch of poems about miscarriages, but I am not sure. I was able to finish this small volume. One star for me. The last volume, Sight Lines by Arthur Sze just won the National Book Award for Poetry this past month. Even the short biography of the poet on that back of the book leaves me feeling daunted..."Moments of grace, eros, and beauty are braided with shudders of terror and threats of ecological destruction, as Sze moves adeptly through intersections of disparate and divergent." I am determined to finish this one because a. it is short (80 pages) and b. it won the National Book Award, but I am not sure I will understand any of the poems. It might be a little like reading a book in Latin. I'll understand a few of the words but the not meaning of the whole.

So there you have it. Eight volumes of poetry, one finished and two or three likely to finish. I'm not doing so good on my own advice to "try a different poet."

How about you? How do you do with poetry? Do you have some favorite poets or poetry collections you recommend? I'm afraid at this rate I'll be back reading Ogden Nash and Shel Silverstein before long.


  1. I like quotes, and some poetry, but not the super dense stuff. I read a lot of French poetry in college and I enjoyed it. (not sure if I would now though--it's work!)

    1. I like to read poems that have quotable lines. Haven't found too many of these lately.

  2. Replies
    1. The Panther

      The panther is like a leopard,
      Except it hasn't been peppered.
      Should you behold a panther crouch,
      Prepare to say Ouch.
      Better yet, if called by a panther,
      Don't anther.

  3. Great post and I am impressed that you kept trying! And yes, as the child of an English mother and a Scottish dad, the language is different. :-)

    1. Once Don and I were watching a movie set in Scotland and we noticed that the closed caption was turned on. When Don moved to turn it off I stopped him. We needed it.

  4. I’m with you. I really don’t like to “work” when I’m reading, It’s also the reason I’m hesitant about the classics. Poetry usually makes me work. Unless I’m in a studious mood, and then I’ll usually pick up a classic. Occasionally...

    1. Now that I am retired I keep asking myself why I am working this hard. For who?

  5. I have to be in the right mood for poetry, so I don't read a lot of it. But when I do find that one poem that captures a mood or moment so perfectly...nothing compares to that. :)


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