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Why Every Writer Should Read Poetry

My relationship with poetry has been troubled. It didn't start well. When I was a child, my father — a diehard Brit, whose favorite breakfast was smoked kippers — encouraged me to read Rudyard Kipling. (Boots, boots, boots, boots, marching up and down again and there's no discharge in the war.) I was seven. Not only had I never encountered war, I don't think I'd ever met a soldier. The pulsing rhythm of the verse commandeered my attention but the meaning skidded right over my head.

In high school I suffered through the usual predictable poetry: William Blake, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and, memorably, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I say "memorably" mainly because my grade 12 lit teacher inserted him into the curriculum when she discovered — to her horror — that no one in the class had ever studied the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. ("We don't mind," we cried, helplessly.)

In university, I finally had a brief poetic epiphany thanks to a gifted English professor. Betty Belshaw taught her students to read poems as if we were detectives attacking particularly interesting cold cases. Incredibly, at least to an 18-year-old from Catholic school, our discussion of The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock included a debate on diarrhea. (This related to the line, "Do I dare to eat a peach?") I don't recall talking about sex, but, surely, we must have. Suddenly, poetry was interesting!

From there, I went to become a fan of Dylan Thomas, William Carlos Williams and Gwendolyn MacEwen and even wrote some poetry of my own. By the time I was 25, however, my interest had trickled away.  

Then, a few weeks ago, a friend asked me if I'd ever read Joseph Brodsky's essay on the value of poetry. "I read it in 1998," she said, "but I've been reading poetry ever since, so it made quite an impression." 

I vaguely knew that Brodsky was a Russian emigree poet (1940-1996) but didn't realize he'd won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1987 and was US poet laureate in 1991. Of course I'd never read any of his work before. Quickly, I placed a library hold on a book of his essays, On Grief and Reason. The essay on poetry, "How to Read a Book," stunned me.

It is sublime.

Here, to me, is the most convincing part of his argument:

"The way to develop good taste in literature is to read poetry," he wrote. "[It] is not only the most concise, the most condensed way of conveying the human experience; it also offers the highest possible standards for any linguistic operation -- especially one on paper.

"The more one reads poetry, the less tolerant one becomes of any sort of verbosity, be that in political or philosophical discourse, be that in history, social studies or the art of fiction. Good style in prose is always hostage to the precision, speed and laconic intensity of poetic diction. A child of epitaph and epigram, conceived indeed as a shortcut to any conceivable subject matter, poetry to prose is a great disciplinarian. 

"It teaches the latter not only the value of each word but also the mercurial mental patterns of the species, alternatives to linear composition, the knack of omitting the self-evident, emphasis on detail, the technique of anticlimax."

Brodsky also provides a list of recommendations, tailored to the readers' mother tongue. For English speakers he suggests: Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop.

So, 30 years after my last interest in poetry, I am starting to read it again. I'm beginning with the poems in the New Yorker and will advance to others shortly.

I'm also reading Brodsky's book of essays. That man can write!

Here is a link to his essay, "How to Read a Book." Please don't read it online. Instead, print it out. It's worth your unfettered attention.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday November 13th 2012, 9:14 AM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
This article reminds me that I've never cared much for most poetry. And I've studied "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "The Prisoner of Chillon"--as a late-bloomer sitting in a college classroom--and enjoyed them both. But after leaving school, I didn't put my mind to the reading of poetry. For me, there were so many self-help books and so little time. My mother had read poetry to us mostly out of books for children, but as much as I loved her reading, I didn't continue reading poetry. I did read a little Rilke poetry after taking German in college, and A. M. Lindbergh's poems after reading "Gift from the Sea," but I don't remember many others--perhaps a smattering here and there. But having read this article, I can say that I'm sorry to have lost out on all those measured words in poetic form. I think it takes more work to understand the meaning of poems, and I'm not sure it isn't too late for me to take them up again. But I'm going to read the essay by Brodsky, and perhaps will be moved to pick up a book of poems. After all, I'm a writer.
Tuesday November 13th 2012, 10:20 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Great advice, Daphne. I have placed Brodsky's book on hold too.
Tuesday November 13th 2012, 11:51 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Meredith, reading Dylan Thomas is an easy way to get started on poetry. His poem The force that through the green fuse drives the flower is my favourite.
Tuesday November 13th 2012, 3:45 PM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
The title is compelling enough! Thanks very much for the suggestion. I'm going to find his book and begin a new adventure in poetry reading. And just so you'll know...I always enjoy your writing.
Tuesday November 13th 2012, 6:33 PM
Comment by: Steve C.
Poetry is more than writing. It is a means of encouraging the audience to read with a focus greater than is generally experienced with the cursory scanning of words that passes as reading. A well written poem brings forth the desire of the reader to not only process, but actually _consider_ each word that is crafted to the page.
Reading poetry is certainly an act of emotional and philosophical sleuthing within intellectually orchestrated scenes that provide rewards worthy the initiative once solved. Writing poetry however; can be, and in my experience is, even more rewarding for the author than the audience.
Tuesday November 13th 2012, 7:04 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
You make a very good point, Steve. I remember labouring over several poems when I was in my early 20s. I stumbled across them not long ago. You are right about the process being very rewarding for the writer.
Tuesday November 13th 2012, 7:07 PM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
Thank you, Steve, for your thoughtful comments. They ring so true and have forced me to consider why I haven't read much poetry--impatience? anxiety? busy bee syndrome? Probably all fit in somewhere. And I'm sure you're right about writing poetry being most rewarding for the author--like cleansing the soul.
Tuesday November 13th 2012, 7:49 PM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
I LOVE the way life works! I had a conversation with my sister this afternoon wherein we discussed what we've been watching on Netflix (and I am watching on Acorn as well). I was explaining the Lord Peter Wimsey series with Edward Petherbridge playing Lord Peter. After we hung up, I looked up the DVDs and then the actor, who has a website and a blog and who writes POETRY as well as reading it for recording purposes--both his and the classics. I listened to him read one of his poems and am going to audible.com to see if they're available. My point (in case I haven't made it yet) is that I read Daphne's article early this morning and the influence of her words is still moving me to do something about exposing my mind to more poetry. And I've looked up Dylan Thomas and will end up getting a book of his. And I'll thank Daphne and Steve C. who really know how to catch my attention.
Tuesday November 13th 2012, 8:12 PM
Comment by: Steve C.
Thanks for your Support Daphne and Merideth. You both together have summed up the reward. I have over the years encouraged people to sit down and write either of two things, a poem or a letter to their self and then seal it, not to be opened for at least 10 years, 20 is better. It is cleansing at the time as Merideth pointed out As I'm certain was experienced Daphne, it can be all the more rewarding when read again later.

As it so often happens with life coming full circle, my wife and I moved recently and I experienced my own advice when I opened a box dating back more than 30 years to grade school. Cathartic writings from a desperate time had become a message from my formative self to the person the passing decades had shaped. It was a profound experience.

Thanks for the article. It was refreshing.
Tuesday November 13th 2012, 9:02 PM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
Well, Steve, I can't imagine opening a 30-year-old box that means so much to my life. But I've written about having the realization that I'm the same me as I've always been, setting down many of my thoughts in order to make things gel in regard to the real me. And that felt profound at the time. I struggled through quite a few years of my life and wrote my misery down in journals. But when I re-read parts of them, my immediate thought was that no one else should read them. I burned them all in the fireplace. I wonder if I could have done that if my entries had been in poetic form. You sound like a man who has been a good friend to many people with a soft shoulder and good advice. Thanks for sharing.
Thursday November 15th 2012, 1:45 PM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
Thank you, Daphne, for the info re/Brodsky. I've ordered a copy via Amazon. Used paperbacks are very reasonably priced.
I was surprised that E. E. Cummings was not included in your list of recommended poets. Care to comment on that omission?
Keith Mac, Kula, Maui
Thursday November 15th 2012, 6:26 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I don't know why I never became an E.E. Cummings fan, Keith. It's not as though I dislike his work. Perhaps I don't find it layered enough? One habit of his I've adopted, though. I always sign my name without capitalization. Like this: -daphne
Thursday November 15th 2012, 11:30 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
While reading poetry certainly can help a writer learn to write in an essential fashion, it also tunes one's ear for sound and rhythm. I've always thought that such facility as I have with language I owe to early exposure to the works of Maurice Sendak and Theodore Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss.
Friday November 16th 2012, 1:36 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I agree with you about sound and rhythm, Mike.

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