How to Read Poetry – Poetry and Pianos

Reading poetry and playing the piano have many things in common.
Piano has Music. Poetry has Language.
Piano has music theory. Poetry has prosody.
Piano has a keyboard. Poetry has voice.
Piano has notes. Poetry has words.
Piano has notes on pages. Poetry has words on pages.
We would not consider teaching someone to play the piano by teaching music theory and leading the student in developing critiques of classical composers. Yet, that is the way we teach poetry.
Why do we do that?
Someone, long ago, decided it was a good idea. The logic likely went like this: when we come to piano we face an unfamiliar savanna filled with new beasts but we already know the beasts of poetry. We’ve used our voice since the day we were born. By time we get to poetry, we’ve used language for years, we have a vocabulary and we’ve learned to read words on pages. “Students,” the wise ones reasoned, “enter poetry class with a complete set of tools, except poetics. Why not begin teaching the subtleties of prosody by analyzing poets’ use of language, voice, words and page-layout?”
But the beasts of poetry are as unfamiliar to us when we get to our first poetry class as are the beasts of piano when we arrive for our first piano lesson. The language of life is not the same as the language of poetry. Poetry is more sacred, mystical and clever. Speakers of English would like the language of life to sound poetic and our poetry to feel like language of life. Much modern reading and writing of poetry emerges from this desire. Some approaches to poetry consider it a rule of practice: poetry should sound like conversation. Well and good, but when the language of life moves from poetry to a lazy, boring news-paper and business plan place, should poetry really follow? When language of life has moved to the lawn chair of expression, can it really do justice for poetry written in a more poetic era? At some juncture language of life must adapt to poetry rather than the other way around. For us, who only know the lazy language of the 20th (and now 21st) centuries, that means learning exciting, new structure and syntax.
Our voices are not ready for poetry either. The voices we develop from the age of two do not serve us well when we apply them to poetry. The voice of conversational English, at least in the United States, has devolved to a state that barely works for rumors, complaining and pseudo-news much less poetry. We do not inflect. We fail to give words a clear place in phrasing. We swallow consonants and elide vowels. Sentences and phrases get ripped apart with syllables that, though formerly words, we’ve made meaningless, like, you know, “like”. Our speech sounds less poetic than the incessant mumblings of semi-intelligent simians.
Poetry also requires more vocabulary than we acquire before reading poetry. Recently, with some controversy, the millionth English word was formally recognized by the counters of English words. One million words in the language. Wow. Except most people go through life with a vocabulary of one-hundred words. One-million words is more than any of us will ever know but one-hundred words is far less than we need to know for poetry.
When we walk into that first poetry class we are not prepared for poetry. We have language rules to unlearn and words we need to make our own. We do not know our voices any better than we know the keyboard. We need to begin at the beginning. We need to learn to play.
Where is the beginning? Just as a new piano player needs to become familiar with the keyboard, new poetry readers need to become familiar with their voices.
We need to develop our voices.
© 2009 Chrome Poet


  • http://sharkey.xanga.com Sharkey!

    I got a little mixed up in this metaphor of piano and poetry. So if I understand correctly you’re saying reading poetry is learning to PLAY music which was written by someone else. Developing your voice (keyboard skills) improves your ability to perform/execute/put life into the piece which was created by the poet.

    As for vocabulary, the Hawaiian alphabet only has 13 letters, does that mean Hawaiians only experience or can express half the Life of a 26 letter speaking person? Maybe that’s taking the words/notes analogy too far.

    • Chrome

      The map is not the territory. Written music and language are no more than a map of sounds and sounds have a huge range because they combine into sonic machines that generate laminated concepts; we generally call these machines analogy, metaphor and simile. It does not matter so much how many symbols it takes to represent the synthesizing elements of poetry on paper but how well the synthesizing elements trigger sense of relationships in our minds.

© 2008-2012 Chromia Poetics