Welcome to the first of April’s Poetry Wednesdays. Please don’t go anywhere. I know at least some of you were thinking of just marking this post “read” because it’s not about prose. And maybe I say that because part of me is thinking of not even trying to write it. I’m just not as comfortable with words in verses as I am with words in paragraphs, even when they’re the same words. But I didn’t always feel that way.
When I was a girl, I used to browse the poetry section in the stacks as religiously as I browsed the fairy tale section (I ignored the rest of the non-fiction until I was old enough for the biography shelves to appeal). Some collections I borrowed and re-borrowed from the library as often as I revisited my favourite stories and novels and I learned them by heart, easily and happily.
Somewhere in my high school years this changed. I’ve heard other people mention that they had English teachers spoil novels for them with intense analysis, but it never mattered to me how many times someone discussed the vital importance of symbology in Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel or the role of pride in Hagar’s life: I still loved the novel and the rest was just details.
With poetry, though, I felt that it was a code I could never crack. It felt as mysterious to me as the Periodic Table, something I needed to memorize and respect, rather than understand and draw closer. I felt separate from it and the analysis increased the distance. I didn’t love those poems and simply regurgitated the correct literary terms and held my breath until we got back to prose.
This is likely as much about me as it may have been about any particular English teacher; if I had responded more openly and confidently to the poetry we were studying, one of them might have said that my interpretation was every bit as valid as theirs, as the one we were being taught. Just like the French teacher who spotted the corrections I had made in my notebook who told me that my answers weren’t wrong, that there was more than one way to translate the same sentence. But somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that poetry needed to be translated and I didn’t know the language, and nobody told me it was subjective.
And then I discovered Edna St. Vincent Millay and I didn’t need anything about it explained to me. I know, I know: young women discovers Millay’s sonnets. Such a cliché. But that cliché closed the gap that I’d felt existed between me and poetry.
Once more I started to browse the poetry shelves, in bookstores as often as libraries, and my stack of books often included a book of verse (although still outnumbered by stories and novels). And, when my workdays ran from 11 to 7, I would begin the day with poetry and tea: a ritual that worked wonders while I worked my way through Millay, Oliver, Rukeyser, Olds and Sarton (and more contemporary poets, but more about those later this month).
But now my days more often stretch from 7 to 11 and I have lost that habit. The last book of poems I read was in 2006 (more about that book later this month, too) and I can’t even remember the one before that. But I miss it and I think about it at the strangest times. Like at President Obama’s Inauguration when everyone was gathered around the broadcast at work, which was something we had never done before and have not done since; we sat together and watched for the duration…well…at least until they introduced the poet.
That’s when everybody else…and I mean e-v-e-r-ybody else…got up and went back to their desks. So I know that I’m not the only one who has felt that poetry is for someone else. Which is why I understand that some people who regularly read these posts will have skipped this one. But I decided on that January day that I definitely wanted to get my poetry habit back. And I decided at the beginning of this year that April was it: I am getting my poetry muscles back in shape.
I’m beginning with Carolyn Smart’s collection, Hooked, recommended by The Indextrious Reader on International Women’s Day this year. It’s published by Brick Books and The Indextrious Reader also has an interview with them here and you can find out more about their April sale at their site. I have an extraordinarily fond spot for Brick Books because they are responsible for one of my most favourite-est collections which I also plan to revisit later this month.
Anyone else a confirmed prose reader who has made — or has wanted to make — friends with lyrics despite an inherent love of paragraphing?