How Reading Poetry Can Sharpen Your Ability to Write

The Art Of Reading Poetry: Internalize Its Care for the Written Word

PoetryWhy is it that a 90-page book dressed in pastoral colors and containing a greater amount of white space than text seems more daunting than Crime and Punishment?

From the golden days of the sonnet to the free-verse poems of today, poetry has suffered from anonymity. It’s often neglected in the classroom, and I’ll bet the Auden or Frost on your grandparent’s shelf hasn’t stretched its spine in a while. And yet this often overlooked form of literature has a power that can be stronger and sharper than prose.

There is certainly an art to reading poetry (not to mention writing it) that can feel elusive to the unintentional reader. Reading poetry so often feels like listening to the joke that everyone but you understands, and that’s partly due to the unlock-the-riddle way it tends to be taught.

Believe it or not, your college professor never had the key to The Wasteland, and she didn’t need one. Trying to see through the sandstorm of meaning will only frustrate, and this is because meaning and answers are not poetry’s main purpose. There is no thesis. There is only a pointing toward something. The combination of image and form and voice and rhyme and other factors works to create a bridge between two paths.

Realizing this might feel a little like taking the red pill, but it’s also liberating once those mental inhibitions have been thrown out. Now the writer can begin to cultivate and internalize poetry’s graceful care and brevity.

Poetry Liberates Language Rather Than Restricts It

In learning how to write you begin with grammar, thesis/plot, and character/argument. The more advanced writer—who is also arguably the more advanced reader—will begin to pick up a unique voice and broaden his or her vocabulary. The more advanced writer begins to develop style.Poetry

What poetry offers is the further freedom of creative expression. Only after learning the rules and mechanics of writing can you artfully sidestep them. When you become a mature reader of poetry you will find yourself stretching for stronger images than casual clichés. You’ll develop the talent for hearing the musical quality of words, which are often the root of the written word’s power, its charisma.

But what about poetry’s supposed flaw? Does its lack of concrete rules and meanings erode a writer’s early training? Just the opposite. Poetry can teach the aspiring writer how to work with conventional forms of grammar by the way it does or does not follow them. The study of poetry has the ability to show the reader what a language is capable of. The insightful or experienced readers will begin to see why and how language can do what it does. And they will then be able to emulate those insights, first by imitation, then, gradually, by inspiration.

Reading poetry takes practice and patience and is not unlike training your ear to hear musical notes. Sometimes it will frustrate, but only because it is stretching you. More and more, it will delight as you develop an ear for the poet’s attention to miniscule details. Read Tomas Transtromer and hear the music packed in with the imagery and meaning when he writes, “In day’s first hours consciousness can grasp the world/as the hand grips a sun-warmed stone.” Poetry is that sun-warmed stone.

As with the best of other forms of art, poetry motions and beckons. But it almost never arrives fully, as with plot. The journey, not the destination, is the purpose. This forces the reader to appreciate subtlety more than closure, asking the perceptive writer to face language’s potential and take responsibility for every word.

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