Why I love poetry (and how you can too)

Sunset over a river

Sunset on the River Medway. Picture: Chris Child, Unsplash

Dealing with email can be a daily organisational chore – but it can also bring joy.

In my daily emails, in among the serious stuff about the state of journalism and the endless promotional emails from Clicks (no matter how many times I unsubscribe, they find a way to send me more), is the Poem of the Day from the Poetry Foundation.

I don’t remember now when I first came across the Poetry Foundation, but I am grateful I did. Their website says they are “an independent literary organization committed to a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture”. The foundation, which publishes Poetry magazine, is based in Chicago so its emails hit my South African email box in the late afternoon, and I often only read the poem a day later. But this is the one email I always open, and always read – even when I have no idea what the poem is about (which happens quite often).

The poems are often tied to a historic event – the email of November 4, 2018, for instance, brought me Insensibility by Wilfred Owen, who died on that day 100 years earlier,  “killed in action during the crossing of the Sambre-Oise Canal in France”. And on National Cat Day (October 28) there was The Cat’s Song by Marge Piercy (ending with two perfect lines about cats: “I will teach you to be still as an egg/ and to slip like the ghost of wind through the grass.”)*

CAREFUL USE OF LANGUAGE

The emails are often out of kilter with life in the southern hemisphere – I’m getting lots about autumn right now, when of course for us it is spring. But it doesn’t matter. Each email reminds me why I love poetry, and why I have always loved it. It’s in the way language can be carefully coaxed to give the sudden insight, the lift of the heart, the stoking of a memory, the evoking of a feeling.

Take the November 3 poem, Autumn by John Clare, in which the last verse goes:

Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun,

And the rivers we’re eying burn to gold as they run;

Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air;

Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.

John Clare was a Romantic poet who lived in England from 1793 to 1864, and his life and work would seem not to be relevant to hot and dry South Africa in 2018. But those lines: “Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air;/ Whoever looks round sees Eternity there” … how could they not stir something in everyone, even if just a mental image of a sunset, burning rivers to gold as they run?

Poetry can be hard to read (and it is often deliberately so) and difficult to understand. But, as with all reading, it is worth persevering: there will almost always be something to be treasured.

TOP TIP FOR READING POETRY

The best way to start decoding an English poem is to start with the punctuation and ignore the way the lines break. The language will possibly have been made to dance, but the punctuation will keep you anchored. In an example from a Shakespeare sonnet that the Poetry Foundation sent out on October 27, Shakespeare writes:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

If you look for the full stops first and ignore the line breaks, you get two sentences, like this:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold when yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang upon those boughs which shake against the cold, bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day as after sunset fadeth in the west, which by and by black night doth take away, death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

Now you have complex sentences to decode, and perhaps some dictionary work to do (the word choir, for instance, does not mean a group of people singing, but instead refers to part of a church building). But the meaning is clearer, I think, because you can work with sentences rather than lines.

* When writing lines of poetry outside of the context of the poem, you indicate a new line with a slash.

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