I really enjoy poetry. I mean, I may never buy myself a book of poetry just for kicks, but I’ve enjoyed growing up in an English-speaking education where poetry was a solid part of each year’s syllabus. And I could tell you some stories of my annoyed classmates and friends who were upset that once again, we were in the poetry section of the semester.
Consider this an open letter to poetry haters and those who dread the inevitable appearance of Shakespeare.
Historically, poetry wasn’t written at all
As you’ve hopefully learned from being forced into indentured read-itude, our earliest literary texts are all poems. From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Homer and Beowulf, so far as we can tell the earliest tales were sung to an audience.
And this makes perfect sense. Even you have an easier time memorizing song lyrics than you do memorizing Calculus math formulas. So if you’re in a pre-writing culture and you can only remember what you hear, you’d rather hear something that has a melody line tied to words.
When we lost the melodies over the course of history all we had left were the lyrics that scribes had written down of these great tales. For the modern learner, that’s the birth of epic poetry. When it comes down to it, at first poetry wasn’t about writing at all, it was about singing.
But musical notation was waaaaaayyyyyy behind the times and showed up long after epic poetry was being written down, so scribes got the idea that songwriting was separate from poetry writing.
It’s a bit of a bummer then that as cultures became more and more literate, their artists started writing poetry without the intention of ever singing it. Because now we have to make the distinction between poetry and song lyrics when to begin with it was all just song lyrics.
I already feel better about poetry when I think of it as lyrics that never had music written for it because I love music and I love lyrics. But poetry is distinct from lyrics even though they started as the same thing.
Poetry on the page
Since poetry is the visible iteration of an auditory phenomenon, we have to interpret it differently. The poetic elements (such as rhyme, rhythm, meter, image, metaphor, etc.) became elements because they helped the writer to a) tell a story and b) look pretty on the page and sound pretty when read aloud.
This fact summarizes 90% of the poetry you will read. And we still read poetry because, like the long songs it came from, it still tells a story today.
In class, we look at the poetic elements carefully because each element helps us interpret the story the poem is telling. And we read poetry out loud because it’s the second-best thing to singing it.
But why should I care about the story poetry tells me?
Great question. Why do you care about the stories told in comic books, video games, or movies? Because whatever your answer is, it applies to poetry.
Looking at (analyzing) poetry is more about teaching you to think about meaning than it is to impart some sort of beauty or truth upon you. Why do words mean things? What do these words mean to you?
And the thing is that unless you don’t care about any art or stories, then you can’t say you don’t need to care about poetry.
But a lot of poetry is gibberish or intentionally has no point.
Absence is its own form of presence. Gibberish poetry points out things about language and writing. If a poem has no point, that’s a commentary on the emphasis we put on meaning.
And looking at the context of that poem and its poet can also tell you a story about them and their time, and why a commentary on the absence of something would be important for them.
Finally, just because you’re not familiar with old English doesn’t make a poem gibberish. It just means you have the unfortunately added task of overcoming a language barrier between you and the poem’s story, which in and of itself creates a story about meaning.
I don’t care what poetry means; it’s irrelevant!
Poetry is every bit as relevant as all of your other classes and assignments. In fact, it’s probably more relevant, because:
- Being able to see the meaning in a poem you will never read again teaches you how to think about meaning. This ability to think allows you to determine meaning in other avenues of your life.
- If you can’t apply the subject matter of the poem to your own life, that’s a problem you have, not a problem with the poem. Making the poetry relevant to you is another skill that you will need to succeed.
Talking about poetry and literature is not important for the poetry or literature’s sake; it’s important because it’s teaching you how to think.
In science, they teach you facts and procedures. In math, they teach you rules and formulas. Most of the core learning classes that you take are spoon-feeding you data, not teaching you how to think.
English as a discipline fills that gap and teaches you how to process the data you receive in other classes. It teaches you how to evaluate the information given to you based on how it’s given, when it’s given, and why it’s given.
The ability to think for yourself is why we still read poetry.
Yes, I realize that other classes don’t just give you data, but also teach you how to think. All the same, reading poetry teaches you those processes that other classes elaborate on and gives you the vocabulary you need in order to express yourself through those processes.
There’s a reason you can write a paper for any class. It’s because humans use language as a way to present ideas and facts. Articulating yourself around poetry builds those skills.
What do you think—why do we still read poetry? Do you read poetry just for kicks (if so who are you reading and where can I get my hands on it) and who do you recommend if yes? Where are some other gaps in our education system that you would like to address? Share in the comments!