Have no idea what’s wrong with T.S. Eliot but you’re sure its something? Cringe whenever you hear the name Ezra Pound? Just think generally that poetry isn’t for you? Well you’re in the right place.
First maybe don’t start with the high modernists (Eliot, Pound, and such). Their poetry is wonderful, but it can be frustrating on the first read for everyone. Part of their whole purpose is to retain the distinction between high art and the mass culture that emerged from industrialization. They mean for it to be filled with allusions and difficult to parse at times, and for good reason.
But when we’re starting our appreciation of poetry that might not be the first hill to climb.
Instead start with a poem that has a set form. That may sound counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t we start with something that seems easier like free verse? What if we don’t know anything about the form? That’s okay. Starting with something that includes rhyme and regularly-metered stanzas can make it easier to get into the music of the verse.
Maybe start with a modernist like Robert Frost, or a New Formalist like Dana Gioia. Poets like these will have lots of rhythmic rhyming stanzas. These two in particular tend to look at deep human concerns with a more down-to-earth vocabulary.
For me it was Robert Service. Like many sixth-graders I read “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and then I discovered more of his verse about the Alaskan wilderness when I was 14.
But even these poems aren’t always easy to understand right off the bat. Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is infamously misappropriated as a celebration of taking the road less traveled, ignoring the sigh heavily laden with nostalgia and just how similar both roads are.
I was talking with Mark Bauerlein about this not that long ago and he shared this method for our first plunge into poetry. Let’s try it. Bauerlein works through Gioia’s poem, “Summer Storm,” but I thought we might look at something a little more familiar, like Frost’s “Desert Places”:
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.
The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.
And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
First, hold back. Don’t worry about making meaning just yet. Also don’t assume that the meaning is readily apparent because it’s such a familiar poem. Let’s just look at the music first.
Read through the poem and enjoy the music. Say it out loud. Poetry is a bodily art. It is meant to be spoken and heard and felt on the tongue.
Notice that the words are pretty simple. There’s nothing really charged with all the baggage of allusion or even any elevated language or poetic syntax. The scene too is easy to get a hold of. Maybe many of us have looked out into snowfall and felt feelings we didn’t fully understand..
Who hasn’t felt the depths of loneliness Frost describes here?
Now, let’s start looking at its details. What’s the shape of the poem? How many lines are there? Does it rhyme? What is the rhyme scheme?
The poem is very regular with four quatrains (four-line stanzas). The rhyme scheme, aaba runs all the way through, and the regular rhythm mimics the soporific effect of falling snow.
Now read through it again. Pick something interesting about it. Maybe an image or a description or a turn of phrase that struck you. Maybe let everyone know about it in the comments.
You now have the building blocks to think more about this poem and make meaning with it.
A lot of times, when we look at a poem and struggle with figuring out what it means, it might just be because we’ve omitted these important steps of just looking at the little things.
Now go back to Eliot with his Wasteland or Pound with his Cantos. I somewhat flippantly said to put them away and suggested that there’s something wrong with them. But there’s really nothing wrong with them. They can be read this same way. Don’t worry right away at figuring out what The Wasteland means. That can never be encapsulated in one reading, especially not our first reading. Or any reading since there will always be something more even for scholars who dedicate their lives to this very poem to discover. Look at the language, the shape of the poem. Find something that strikes you, that you can’t look away from. Then after that you can look into that sibylline epigraph or maybe even look into the Fisher King myth or the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
But this is just one way to start reading a poem.
I sometimes apply the monastic lectio method instead to the first few times I read a poem where I read lines over again meditatively, maybe even memorizing some, and then sit with it, and then maybe respond.