Of Poets we have enough. More to the point, of people who attempt to write poetry, our society overflows. Readers we lack; those who read poetry well appear too seldom in our society.
Against all odds, poetry got cool to do. Current interest in poetry does not attain overwhelming popularity like that generated for national talent shows and reality TV. But it flourishes, if not on Main Street then just off the main drag and around the corner. With the popularity of open-mic and slams, writing and reciting poetry has found a new home in a subculture not far from the suburbs.
That the surge of poets occurred without equal growth in readers should not surprise. Publishers publish books to help naïve writers write poetry. Education presents poetry in a manner that few survive and of the survivors, nearly all survive by writing, not by reading, poetry. Open mike nights and poetry slams encourage poets to read poetry: poetry they’ve written; not the same as learning to read other poet’s poetry. Many poets seem only to read poetry they have written. We might have more active poets than active readers of poetry.
Poets are coming out of the woodwork but readers of poetry are not. Judging from comments readers make, the few who read poetry, read poetry poorly.
Of the little time educators dedicate to poetry, few if any lessons explore interpreting and reading poetry; rarely does a student encounter an appealing relationship between reader and verse. Poets, even dead poets, retain iron-clad control over readers. The partnership between poet and reader remains unexplored. Poetry becomes a puzzle or embarrassing maze readers need to navigate. Educators may disagree with this perception. I doubt students have any doubt that it is true.
The pedagogy of poetry misleads students to the role of reader while discouraging all but the most talented from embracing poetry, ever, under any circumstances. The few, brightest, who manage to salvage love of language from the disaster of poetry classes must learn how to read poetry on their own. Like the victims of abstinence-only sex-education, they must unlearn much before learning little. Unlike the victims of abstinence-only sex-education, poetry readers learn alone; they read without partners; modern media provides no support; society disregards poetry as having no utility, as an aesthetic, as an art of no genuine value. Developing skills in a vacuum, have no doubt, poetry reading is a skill, challenges the best; yet most who find reading poetry essential to quality of life cultivate the art of reading solo, without gurus, road-signs or how-to books.
Reading poetry produces dangerous citizens; seeking and interpreting great poetry expands the mind beyond the restricting implants of those who protect status quo.
Knowing how to read poetry adds considerable value to the reader’s life, especially in our Age of Disinformation. A good reader sifts grain from chaff, recognizes the misleading, finds intent between lines and forms a unique interpretation in contrast to the masses who accept perceptions from self-appointed pundits. Embracing poetry as reader, an individual may escape the bear-traps of propaganda, sensationalism and misguidance of media generated Zeitgeist.
Schools teach students to read as if all words emerge from technical documents. Readers are asked to identify meaning; to second guess the author; to explore the mind of the speaker. In technical reading, this approach works because to succeed, technical writers and their readers require a transfer of idea from the mind of the writer to the mind of the reader; a transfer as complete and unchanged as possible. When a technical writer states “ … the foo is bar …” the verb form to be acts as an ‘=’; the writer informs the reader that foo and bar are interchangeable. The meaning intended by the technical writer is essential to the utility of the document.
Reading poetry is very much like playing the piano and not at all like reading a user guide.
Reading poetry requires a very different approach; interpretation in contrast to understanding the writer’s (or speaker’s) intention or meaning; more akin to appreciating painting, dancing or playing music than to reading a white paper. Piano players interpret music. Some piano players display more skill with the tool than others. Some display more talent for interpretation than others. Some do both. None do so without training and practice.
Reading poetry requires us to interpret the poetry which does not mean we try to discover the meaning. We no more need to grasp the meaning of poetry as we read than we need to discover the meaning of Satin Doll when playing from a fake book.
Until educators teach poetry as an act of interpretation rather than an exercise of understanding; as the creation of two artists: the poet and the reader, our society will lack poetry. It is not enough to have poets without readers any more than it is enough to have composers without musicians.
At this time, I do not read poetry well. The talent co-exists with great laziness. In the absence of external encouragement, I stopped development at a point just above average. Given the level of the bar, this does not deserve applause. Study of my very visible short-comings, in the context of reading poetry, and desire to improve inspire this personal examination of the reading process and a mode of thought that seems to improve enjoyment of poetry for me. I hope it will do the same for you.
This is only the beginning, I hope it has peaked interest.
© 2009 Chrome Poet