About Poetry

Three years ago this day, when I had no interest in poetry or poets and had never imagined I would ever pick up a book of poetry, I was stunned to read the news item in the Wall Street Journal that talked about Ruth Lilly’s bequeathing $100 million to Poetry magazine. According to Joe Parisi, editor of this 1912 magazine that has featured works of Dylan Thomas, Yeats and Auden over the years, this generous donation ensures their existence in perpetuity. What’s even more interesting is the fact that Ms Lilly, a poet herself, has only ever received rejection letters from the magazine and she has been trying for thirty years!

This was a small headline in the Wall Street Journal, where the paper lists all the news in three or four line snippets on the first page.. I remember reading it, remarking on it and moving on. Not even bothering to read the detailed news item in the inner pages. Poetry was not something I ever thought about.

Fast-forward three years and I am like a kid in the candy store. Devouring everything poetic that crosses my line of vision and occasionally attempting a verse or two of my own. Last year was the first time I started paying any attention to poetry. I had joined a writers’ network online and saw some people post a new poem everyday. I was in awe. I was also disappointed with the network because it seemed to be favoring poetry and poets. I never saw much prose being posted. Poetry had always left me cold before but prose was a different matter. I had always loved to write and prose came rather effortlessly to me. But I kept an open mind and started paying attention to the poetry being posted. This was quite an education. I rarely noticed any structure or rhyme. This disturbed me, I found it disconcerting because I expected poems to rhyme. I expected each line to start with a capitalized letter, I expected to see stanzas. I wasn’t seeing any of this. It made me question some folks on the network. I asked them what they thought poetry was. I asked if prose spaced differently can be called poetry (with a healthy dose of sarcasm) because that’s what I thought I was seeing. The answers that came back were in favor of “free verse”. One person who answered me alerted me to the fact that a lot of poetry was about recitation, about reading out aloud and that which distinguished it from prose was the inherent poetic rhythm.

I accepted the answer for the time being. But then I came across the poetry of a person who never sacrificed rhyme or rhythm or structure. The confines were rigid but the message was always profound, albeit filled with extreme hurt and bitterness. This person’s work really sparked my interest in poetry and made me want to read more, to explore, to study styles, to observe and to learn. I am a long way from writing outstanding or deeply satisfying poetry but I have come a very long way in understanding and appreciating what I do read. There are poems that reel me in, each word sinking in, appearing magical making me marvel at the writer and the written word and then there are others that make me wonder why the author wanted something so pedestrian stated in verse. They are uninspiring and leave me cold. But the same poem appeals to certain others, they like it, love it, they celebrate the author while I wonder what they saw.

It isn’t comforting not knowing what’s good poetry and what isn’t. If it is something so subjective, that what some like, others find pedestrian, why expect critique? What does one expect from critique?

The more I immerse myself in poetry, the more I find that this interest was meant to be. This is how my brain thinks. It’s a deep-seated desire to communicate, to say the most in as few words, in les mot juste. I see many do it so effectively. I have been noticing several layers of meaning within very simple sounding words, words like rainbows reflecting all colors, the entire spectrum of human emotions and some with words and sentences that are so opaque, it’s almost as if they absorbed every bit of meaning or associations available, transmitting nothing like light. I see such poetry praised and I get confused to the point of insanity as I ask myself, “What am I missing?” It is almost as if it is too late, as if in early childhood the brain got wired such that I would never know what “good” poetry is. I keep falling back on instincts, instinctively determining whether or not a poem has been successful in communicating its meaning to me. If it has it is the most amazing piece of poetry, if it hasn’t it is just black words on paper or in cyberspace.

But I know that is not enough. I feel the structure is important. I always like poetry that follows a rhyme scheme, meter, that can be read aloud and sounds euphonic with an inherent rhythm. I like the cleverness seen in alliteration and am slowly becoming impressed to the point of marveling at the kinds of poets who tell me they can map out an entire sonnet in their head before they actually transmit it to paper. The idea that there is “logic” and a system to a poem makes me very glad. It gives my pattern-seeking brain a tremendous amount of hope. It is not a riddle, there is a method to this madness and I am going to discover what it is. It has become an obsession. Something I couldn’t care less about up until 365 days ago, is now an all-consuming obsession; not writing it so much as understanding it completely.

It is easy to learn things these days by surfing the Internet and following each link to the next level of information, however, it is heart-warming and extremely enlightening when someone who knows about poetry talks to you and tells you, without a trace of condescension, what good poetry is all about, that a Shakespearean sonnet is a good place to start ones education in poetry. It is thrilling to be taught that one can think of a sonnet as two poems – an octave and a sestet The octave, the first eight lines, sets up the theme of the sonnet and the sestet, the last six lines, is for resolution or conclusion. This however, is not a Shakespearean sonnet, it is a Petrarch sonnet, I believe. The Shakespearean one has three quatrains where the first and third lines and the second and fourth lines rhyme. The Shakespearean sonnet ends with a couplet where both lines rhyme and are always indented. I was also told how important the ending couplet was to the Shakespearean sonnet. Any sign of forced rhyming and it is reduced to nothing but a farce. Of course the iambic pentameter is indispensable to the entire sonnet. This was a lot of learning for me in one incredible chat session with a very disciplined poet. He encouraged me to try writing sonnets, but told me to read enough of them first, to immerse myself in them. I will always be grateful for this advice.

Maybe someday I will know enough to understand the points that literary critics are trying to make when they dissect a particular poem. And perhaps this clarity will come after I learn how to understand every piece of poetry I read.

Until that day, I continue on this quest and see where it takes me. I have found many friends who are willing to share a wealth of poetic knowledge, to offer help and guidance and it is thrilling to see how ones mind can expand when one is exposed to pure knowledge. I have a very long way to go but as Ringo said, “I’ll get by with a little help from my friends…”

8 Comments

  1. What a wonderfully educating piece this is and yet so personal as in, it allows the reader to delve into the workings of your mind.I have to admit, I know nothing about poetry! Nothing technical at any rate :)and yet for as long as I remember I've been writing poetry(first one age 9)for its cathartic..poetry for me is merely a means to 'catch' hold of all those amorphous feelings and emotions that flit around and sometimes consume! And my education has been entirely in the sciences! First chemistry and then educational psychology..now where does that leave me??!!I have no idea whether I write good or bad poetry..perhaps someday You'll tell me?:))Looking fwd to communicating more with you and my apologies for the extremely long and ponderous comment! :))

  2. you've said all that i've wanted to but never found the words for…nisha

  3. I can understand. I have always loved poetry. I was initiated to Brownings and Burns at an early age. My mom loved poetry and used to read out me.Writing poetry came only a little ago. Free verse comes easy. Haikus, senryes, triolets, clerihews I can write and have written but sonnets/villanelles are kind of maddening.Alliteration and internal rhymes fascinate me. But structured poetry, I am yet to master.Your post is very enlightening. You have conveyed all those thoughts which flitted in my mind.

  4. A dull monday afternoon and suddenly I come across this! Thank you :)You've expressed a lot of my own questions about a common passion. Look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

  5. I like your writings very much, specially your stories and other prose. Poems too are quite good, but I find you have natural flair for prose as you have mentioned your preference for prose. Keep writing. I wait for your new posts, though perhaps it is first time that I am making any comment on your blog.

  6. Pragya,Very informative! Let's discover poetry together, here and on the board!J

  7. I think you have articulated your poetic views in a wonderful prose.I have this love-hate relationship with poems. Some people have a way of weaving without being complicated yet has that rhythm..!I guess in the end,a good poem is a very subjective one and ruled only by the rules of how much it touches your heart!

  8. very informative..thanks…read my poems and tell me wat u think…cheers!


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