When I was young I reflexively told people I liked poetry. I hardly knew any poets and barely understood those I had read, but poetry seemed to be a necessary affectation for the burgeoning literary snob that I was. I read randomly: Blake and MacLeish, Poe and Dickinson, Whitman and Carroll. I memorized “The Tiger” because I had to, “The Raven” because I was bored in class, and Dickinson because I was bored while sneezing.
I stuck to the poets of previous centuries for the most part, although I was vaguely aware that poets were not an extinct species, that dark corners of the planet still held strange specimens who wrote without meter or rhyme about The Orgasm and the joys of life as a Maoist rebel in Punjab, but I gave them a wide berth for fear that I might catch something and lose my ability to write with capital letters.
I couldn’t tell good poetry from bad, and that made me wary of everything I read. Perpetually afraid of being taken in by the wrong poetic crowd and waking up one day a chain-smoker in tight jeans in a Greenwich Village walk-up, I soon refused to read any poets I didn’t already know. Parched by the heat of suspicion, my love for poetry quickly withered and then fossilized, until I placed it on a shelf with my other forgotten youthful infatuations, like Star Wars and the clarinet.
Graduate school, of all things, rekindled my self-proclaimed love for poetry. It was the eighth-century Japanese poetic collection Man’yôshû that started it, and my frustration that all the scholarship I read about the work was completely tone-deaf to its musical artistry. “What about the beauty?” I protested, “How come no one talks about the beauty?”
One day I was teaching a class on the Man’yôshû in the presence of one of America’s greatest East Asian scholars. I waxed eloquent on the historical context of the poems, the way they tied religion to the state, and the government’s use of the collection to solidify national unity in the eighth and nineteenth centuries. At some point the professor interrupted me with the same question I was wont to ask: Isn’t there something to this poetry besides politics?
Only then did I realize that, despite my protests, I was practically deaf to poetry; I talked about poetry because it was Important and defended its aesthetic dimensions out of a contrarian distaste for historical-critical scholarship, but I refused to spend the time to engage that beauty on its own terms. I tried to read more, and managed to fall in love with a few new (modern!) poets, but self-consciousness still hobbled me: Am I getting this? Is this worth spending my time on? Is this deep, or just confusing?
Oddly, I think two things turned the tide for me: the visual arts and hiking. After a few years spending much of my time working with, studying, and praying about art, interspersed with frantic flights into the mountains to escape D.C. living, I began to see beauty in a new way.
Previously, when I saw something beautiful, be it a Monet or a mountain, I would immediately bristle with questions: What does this mean? Why is this here? Am I missing something? Have I looked at this enough? Can I move on? Am I being a Philistine or an aesthete? And so on.
I was approaching beauty like a dry orange from which I was duty-bound to wring out a few drops of meaning, to be swallowed for their nourishing effects on the soul but not enjoyed. After staring at enough ermine-wrapped ladies and fog-wrapped lakes, I finally realized that the important thing about beauty is not to crack its code, but to experience it. In short, after years of failed attempts I finally learned to do what I thought I was doing all along: to enjoy beauty on its own terms.
The discovery that beauty is not a matter of wrangling with an invisible professor for a coveted A+ in Appreciation was what set me free to read poetry. Poetry, like life, has to be experienced and received as it is, so that it can unfold later in memory. Asking “What does this mean?” the second one finishes a poem is like being a child who perpetually asks “Why?” whenever his parents make a statement. The answer to both questions is the same: be patient, live for a while, and you’ll see.
The Poet’s Invitation
That’s because poetry, as a work of beauty, is essentially a communication of reality. A poet invites his reader to share something he has discovered, whether it’s the sheer joy of language in one of Richard Wilbur’s riddle-poems, the painful ambivalence of leaving faith behind in one of Philip Larkin’s post-religious works, or the quiet satisfactions of married life in one of Mike Aquilina’s love-notes to his wife.
The reader who actually opens himself to the poem, who lets it live in his mind, comes to know something he didn’t know before, and comes to love something he didn’t love before. In a word, he experiences beauty, and is changed by it.
I once wrote off poetry out of frustration at its meaningless pretensions. But what I have discovered is that my pretensions were in fact what was blinding me to the beauty I was trying to see. I still can’t say that I’m an expert in poetry; I have still probably read more mid-twentieth century Catholic science fiction novels than books of poetry. But at last I have discovered the beautiful in poetry. And, as Wilbur says, “the beautiful changes.”