Every day millions of people read the complexity of their friends and heroes from the 140 characters of Twitter, yet would sneer at a haiku.
Thousands of teenagers listen to the same song on repeat for hours hearing a message that mirrors their belief the world is flawed, yet would disdain beat poetry.
To those who read, write, and critique poetry this can sometimes seem like deliberate blindness; denying themselves the words to fulfil some trend of coolness or normality. However the problem might be that Western society does not train or assist people in experiencing poetry.
Poetry is sometimes lauded as the ultimate distillation of experience into words. Moving beyond the themes and subtexts of the novel into a realm where each word, each syllable, is necessary to the whole
However if each word counts for a scene or a chapter in the story then a failure to understand a single word is to miss so much, and a misinterpretation shatters immersion like a bad commercial break.
Used to the there and gone flicker of modern media, the potential experiencer is tricked by the deceptive shortness of a poem; expecting the easy feed of a news ticker they find themselves in a labyrinth of distorting mirrors.
Even if experiencers understand the words, rhythm matters in poetry: read silently half the meaning remains trapped on the page in the void between words; read aloud for the first time a poem often surprises the tongue and the lungs, words that behaved well in casual speech race ahead stealing breath only to suddenly crash into confusion. It is only after practising a poem, both silently and aloud, that we cease to sound like a bad cover played on cheap speakers.
Where watching a film, reading a book, or listening to music can all be passive poetry demands that experiencers actively participate; it refuses to bow to the demand for instant gratification.
The experiencer who grasps the thread of a poem and follows it to the end finds not freedom but different maze to navigate.
We most often come to new works by finding them next to works we already like: book shops are filled with shelves divided by genre, tags hanging next to staff picks to suggest similar titles; music stores hold racks split by genre, pop-out displays highlighting new bands in your noise of choice.
Poetry, the fusion of writing and music, has neither: Ginsberg sits on the same shelf as Tennyson; wistful recollections of clouds over spring flowers sit next to calls to tear down the calcified prison of a bleeding world; only the comedy verse is free to leave the gulag of Poetry, released on bail to the halfway houses of Humour and Children’s Books.
Maybe you are looking for ways to deal with these issues; and I do have some ideas that might work for me. However, these are obstacles created by a global one-sized-for-all society, so the solutions cannot be general and global; they need a targeted local approach.
For example asking for poetry to be shelved by genre might work in a small book shop but will need a huge effort if your local book shop is a multinational chain. However, getting the genre attached in another way might remove the need; if they are a multinational then their customer reviews will probably populate across continents, so add some suggestions for similar poets to the reviews.
Taking this idea further, as well as getting poems into the hands and ears of new readers look to embed it in other works, like music albums growing from films. Bruce Dickinson introduced a generation of metal heads to the acidic cosmology of William Blake; Iain M. Banks not only takes half his titles from The Wasteland, he also quotes it on section breaks; maybe you can set Wordsworth to a trip-hop beat for your cousin’s band; or spray paint a villanelle on your local graffiti wall.
Or maybe it just helps to know that the rejection is not always personal.
by David Higgins
David Higgins manages Davetopia, a literary blog that provides reviews, updates on the reading realm, and useful posts for readers/writers alike.