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forty-two

Next step in learning to appreciate/love poetry?

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I've gone from no appreciation whatsoever to a kind of fledgling, neophyte, still-mostly-aspirational-but-occasionally-concrete starter-level appreciation.  But I feel like I've stalled out in my progress and I'm not sure how or where to get going.

My one real achievement is learning to hear and genuinely enjoy the sound elements of poetry - the rhythm and rhymes and word play and such.  I started out firmly in the camp of "why bother putting things into poetry when prose is so much better anyway", but now I can at least appreciate how good sound is worth aiming for.  (I still appreciate the stronger and more obvious sounds, though - not sure I'm up for catching the more subtle rhythms.)  But I'm still pretty much at square one when it comes to appreciating the visual images; it's still way too much like deciphering the images instead of *feeling* the images; it still feels like the images are getting in the way of the meaning instead of being the substance of the meaning.

Actually, I'm not sure I actually grasp all that much about how the rhythms and rhymes and such embody meaning, either, but I enjoy them for their own sake; and for my own sanity, I'm subscribing to the “appreciating poetry for being lovely is at least half of the point of poetry appreciation” school of thought. (I also subscribe to the “the sound of poetry is at least half the point” and “only analyze poems you already love” schools, too.)

But I'd like to learn to appreciate the imagery side of poetry, too: to appreciate the lovely images of a poem as much as the lovely sound of it.  And to generally increase my poetry reading ability and stamina.

As far as it goes, I genuinely *like* nursery rhymes and humorous children's poetry (Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, T.S. Eliot's “Book of Practical Cats”, A.A. Milne in Winnie-the-Pooh).  And I intellectually appreciate and mildly like non-humorous children's poetry (Robert Lewis Stevenson and the ones in children's anthologies).  AKA I enjoy poems with lots of fun rhythms and sounds and wordplay, coupled with straightforward images; plus humor provides excellent motivation.

But I haven't really progressed beyond that. There's been the occasional poems I've struggled with on and off because I was motivated to understand them (Tolkien's “Mythopoeia”, Kipling's “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”, some of Dante's “Inferno”), plus I try hard not to just skip poetry excerpts when they are quoted in prose stuff I'm reading (although sometimes I fail when the excerpts are on the longer side).
(Interestingly, I just realized that on the “harder” poems I was motivated to understand despite the inherent detriment of their being poetry – I almost entirely ignored the sound. Whereas on the poems I'm reading *because* they are poetry, I pay far more attention to the sound than the images.)

Anyway, I've thought about trying narrative poetry, because I like stories (and things with a point), and it might help improve my poetry stamina. But unless the language is really good (while the images are not-too-hard to comprehend), it's going to suffer from “this story would be so much better in prose” syndrome. Any recs for good narrative poems, especially those with a great sound to them?

I've also thought about trying short poems of increasing difficulty, hopefully some that have a great sound and are in areas of interest. Any recs for good humorous or religious poems (esp sacramental Christianity; hymn recs welcome)?

Or, really, any poems you absolutely love and want to sell me on?  Other people's enthusiasm carries me pretty far (esp if the poem is short <shifty>).

~*~

Also, any thoughts or links or recs wrt “why poetry” are welcome. I have only the most fledgling intuitive sense of “why poetry.” It's enough to inspire me to press on, to take it on faith that poetry can convey things that are impossible to convey in prose, and that those things are worth the trouble of conveying - but I still have no idea what those things actually are. I've read a lot of “why poetry” stuff, and while I'm inspired by their writers' obvious passion for poetry, their reasons never resonate. It's like they have the worldview of a poetry-lover and I don't, and until I can somehow manage the paradigm shift, I'll never be able to understand their reasons. Especially since half the time they resort to poetry to try to explain their love of poetry ;). Understandable, given that poetry is apparently the best way to try to say the unsayable, but not as helpful as it could be to the aspires-to-understand-poetry set, lol.

(It has occurred to me that my attempts to try to understand poetry apart from actually, you know, actually reading poetry, might amount to me seeking a royal road to poetry <shifty>.)

I know I suffer from needing to know *why* I'm doing something, and my reasons for "why tackle poetry" are still a little too "because it's good for you (somehow, in general)".  About all I have for intuitive, felt reasons is the inherent pleasure of strong, singsongy rhythms; this one, brief shining moment of poetry appreciation in high school where I had to answer a multiple choice question about the meaning of a line and it just struck me so hard how the line itself was so much fuller and more beautiful and made the test answer seem so ugly in comparison; and when I was filling out a response form for a religious retreat I was on and I didn't have the words to describe what the services were like - I had to resort to "It was really great", and that was just so *inadequate* that it made me wish I'd memorized poetry, so I'd have had the words to do justice to the experience.  Those are enough to keep me plugging in an on-and-off sort of way, but not enough to persist in a disciplined sort of way.

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I love this question! I'm going to take a stab at it but I'm really looking forward to reading others' answers.

I think imagery in poetry is often a way of shoehorning new big ideas into your brain. So for example, when Milton says that fallen angels lay on the ground as "thick as autumn leaves," my mind is presented with two ideas at once: the idea of fallen angels, which I can only dimly imagine under most circumstances, and the idea of autumn, which I know very well. It's kind of a mind-stretching experience which allows me to intuit something about angels, if that makes sense. I think imagery can often stretch us in that way, and can help get across different points of view, feelings, places. All kinds of things that would otherwise be out of reach or remain total abstractions can come a little closer to us, thanks to imagery.

On poetry in general: there's a book which I've only read part of but have been meaning to buy -- it's about the poet Kenneth Koch and his experience teaching kids how to write poetry. The poetry that the kids wrote was pretty amazing and I think the book itself says a lot about not only writing, but appreciating poetry, and I think it can apply to any age. If anything, the idea is that kids are more flexible and open to poetry than the rest of us. It's called "Rose, where did you get that red? Teaching great poetry to children."

For epic poems -- I don't know a lot but I recently listened to Seamus Heaney reading his translation of Beowulf. It's on YouTube and free, with no ads. I took my time and spent a few weeks on it with lots of pauses, and I really enjoyed it. It's an adventure story, really well told.

 

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I vote that you read Tania Runyan's How to Read a Poem. Lovely, pragmatic, easy-to-understand, short book for beginning poetry appreciation for the complete novice. 😄 

From there, if you have middle school/high school-aged students, perhaps go through the Art of Poetry program together, a little at a time -- a guided appreciate program, that will help you see deeper or understand what you're looking for and why.

It sounds like you have a grasp of the intellectual,  "word play" and abstract verbal aspects of poetry, but struggle with grasping the emotional, visual, and metaphoric aspects of poetry. Some poems are just about experiencing or being in "the moment." Or visualizing what the poet is laying out before you. And yes, there is often an element of expressing a theme or "big idea" through the images in the poem -- but again, it's going to be subtle, complex, indirect, and likely with multiple meanings, because there is what the poet was attempting to put into the poem, but there is also what you, the reader bring to the table -- your experiences, your emotions, your understandings -- which may be very different from the poet's. That's okay! 😄 

As for "why poetry"... Well, precisely because it is NOT prose. 😉 

In addition to the sound elements (which make poetry something to be read aloud to be able to fully appreciate the craft of the poet), poetry is filled with emotion, as well as imagery, metaphor, simile, and symbolism. Because we cannot always directly explain or express something, poetry helps us come at it from the unusual angle, in order to make connections and associations (depth!) that we never would have made with direct straight-line prose.

An idea that helps me understand "why poetry" is to consider how much of Scripture is written in poetry. For example, when the Lord inspired the prophets to write down the visions he gave them, they were not simple x=y visions, or allegories. Prophecies are multi-layered, because God is an infinite God and we are finite, so we are only going to begin to "click" with some of the things He is trying to tell us by way of metaphor, images, symbols, and connections. And also because God is infinite, he layers and spirals and nests multiple meanings into the poems of Scripture.

For Christian sacramental poems -- the book of Psalms! Written in Hebrew poetic forms (so not the rhyming Western form of most poetry of the 17th-19th centuries). Also, consider traditional hymns -- traditional Western poetic rhyme schemes AND amazing doctrine.

And, if you feel brave enough (lol) to try some free verse poems by contemporary Christian poets:
- Tania Runyan's books: A Thousand Vessels, and, Second Sky
- Scott Cairns' book: Endless Life of the Mystics
- Robert Cording's book: Only So Far


For older epic narrative poetry -- Beowulf. Try the Seamus Heaney translation -- beautiful and powerful. (Written in Old English epic poetry form that focuses on alliteration, kennings, and with a "bob & wheel" structure.)

For more narrative poems, check out this recent thread: "Narrative poetry for 14yo (or other poetry that'll engage him)".

Edited by Lori D.
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My appreciation for poetry came from my dd falling in love with it when she was in 7th grade.  I did an Anne of Green Gables study with her, and we studied everything Anne was reading/quoting.  Dd completely and totally fell in love with epic poetry and Shakespeare that yr. Her enthusiasm was contagious. We have continued studying poetry in depth in our homeschool since.  

For me, anyway, listening to epic poetry being read in the way it is meant to be read is what makes it rich and enjoyable.  RIght now my sr and I are studying Paradise Lost.  There is no way I would attempt to study it with our just reading it b/c so much of the beauty would be lost.  We are reading along with an audio recording and Anton Lesser's lilting and emotional rendition carries you along with him.  As you go through the poem, you can't help but appreciate Milton's brilliance in how he makes Satan real with his characterization of self-deluded grandeur that keeps diminishing in stature compared to God and His creation or weep for the fall of Adam through his desire for Eve above his love for God.  

All that to say, for me, an appreciation for poetry comes from the poetry itself, not necessarily in analyzing its form.  We have kept analyzing the form to the poems in Art of Poetry.  We can take what we learn from Art of Poetry and mention form in terms of appreciation across other poetry without taking other poems and making analyzing form the focus.

Don't know if that is at all helpful or what you are looking for.  (FWIW, we have taken the same approach with Shakespeare.  I really love Shakespeare now and didn't use to.)

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You might look at the Oxford Book of Narrative Verse or the Oxford Book of Ballads and just try some poems out until you find one you like the start of enough to keep reading. 

For Christian sacramental poems maybe look at the Metaphysical Poets. John Donne's holy sonnets are a great place to start, "Batter my heart, three-personed God," "Death be not proud," etc. Reading Donne in high school with a wonderful teacher was a hugely formative experience for me. You will probably want a good dictionary for those, to get at some of the archaic meanings of his language, or at least find an edition with good notes and a substantive introduction. The poems are short so it's easier to put in a little work. 

There's also a nice edition of Shakespeare's sonnets with short facing-page commentaries by Helen Vendler.

In general, one suggestion I have is to think about whether a poem moves you and how - think about how it hits you emotionally, in addition to what it "means."

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Have you read Tennyson?

2nd that you should read traditional hymns for religious poetry.

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Totally agreeing with 8FillTheHeart's comment above using audiobooks so you can *listen* to the poem and catch the sounds and the images from someone who understands how to *read* poetry. 

Edited by Lori D.
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20 hours ago, forty-two said:

...

Or, really, any poems you absolutely love and want to sell me on?  Other people's enthusiasm carries me pretty far (esp if the poem is short <shifty>).

...

Oooh! I’ll write you an essay!

I came to poetry as a musician, attracted to the beauty of the sound and rhythm of language.  All the earlier posters have given you great resources. But I’ll try to sell you on a few of my favorites, focusing on sound and rhythm.

One of my favorite poems for the sheer beauty of language is "When We Two Parted", by Byron. The topic is depressing (that’s NOT why I love the poem!): It’s about a jilted lover telling (in imagination, I assume) how he would react if he were accidentally to meet his former love interest sometime afterwards, but the language is lyrically gorgeous. Here is the third stanza, my favorite:

They name thee before me, 
A knell to mine ear; 
A shudder comes o'er me - 
Why wert thou so dear? 
They know not I knew thee, 
Who knew thee too well -  
Long, long I shall rue thee, 
Too deeply to tell. 

Read it out loud and and let your tongue roll over all those delicious “n’s” and “oo’s”. Then the gentle triplets abruptly stop short with the first “long”, like a punch to the narrator’s Romantic gut. It’s amazing how Byron could convey so much with a limited set of sounds.

(For a far more uplifting poem of Byron’s, check out "She Walks in Beauty". There’s some really nice alliteration in the first few lines.)

Edgar Allan Poe was superb at turning language into music. In fact, it was his essay, "The Philosophy of Composition", in which he detailed his process for composing "The Raven", that first introduced me to the idea that the sound of language itself could be beautiful. 

Here are just four lines from his poem "Annabel Lee" (yes, another depressing one, but gorgeous sounds):

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

Read them out loud, with a slight drawing out of the internal rhymes (“beams” and “dreams”, and “rise” and “eyes”). Listen for the repeating “m”s and “b”s. It’s like linguistic chocolate.

For devotional poetry, please look at the wonderful Scottish Metrical Psalter. These are the psalms arranged for rhyme and meter. In my opinion, the most beautiful of these versified psalms (and, of course, the most well-know), is Psalm 23. You may already know it versified like this. Here is the first stanza:

The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want.
He makes me down to lie.
In pastures green: he leadeth me
The quiet waters by.

You may want to listen to it set to music, reading the text at the same time. Brother James' Air is simply the most beautiful setting for this versified Psalm 23 that I know. (Oh, please do listen to it! It’s gorgeous!)

Other favorite Psalms from the Scottish Metrical Psalter are 1, 84, and 121. In fact, when I have my kids memorize psalms, we always memorize them in these versified forms, because I think they stick better, especially when set to music, and they’re just plain beautiful. Check out this hymn setting (you'll need to add the singing yourself!) of the first part of Psalm 84 from the Psalter.

For narrative poetry, my first recommendation would be "The Courtship of Miles Standish" by Longfellow. It’s not too long, the plot is accessible, it has some gentle humor, and of course, there is the sweet romance.

I know this has been practically a book, but it’s hard not to gush about beautiful poems. Best wishes to you as you delve deeper into poetry!

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I only have a moment for now, but I hope to circle back here later. I would strongly recommend Michael Clay Thompson’s book Music of the Hemispheres for a simple introduction to several elements of poetry. The man clearly loves language - it shines through in his work - & there are also skill-based prompts. Poetry is a “low floor, high ceiling” creature... I’ve found that appreciation really blossoms once you’ve wrestled with it yourself. 

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We don't analyze poetry too much here, we just read it aloud and talk about why we do or don't like it. The more we read it, the more we seem to find to like about it 🙂

Narrative poetry that is fun and easy to understand and sounds great read aloud: Robert W. Service and Edgar Allan Poe

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Something I enjoy(ed)-- The Writer's AlmanacHearing a poem read daily is just plain lovely. 

Be warned that not all the of poems read will be best for little ears.  He assumes his audience is adults who can handle an occasional use of language or reference to "love".   It's rare, but it does show up if you troll the archives on the website.

(Yes, I know that Mr. Keillor was a bad boy...but I will still listen to him read poetry.)

Edited by Zoo Keeper
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Thanks so much for all your responses :).  I have the Koch and MCT books, and started reading the Koch one today.  The Runyan one looks interesting - I remember looking it up when you'd rec'd it on another thread, Lori; I re-read the Billy Collins poem - I do like that one, the image of torturing a poem to get at its meaning rings all too true.  

I'm not a huge podcast/audiobook person - I like to see things in print - but I can see the advantage to hearing poems read well.  We listen to audiobooks of familiar books, and a good reader's worth their weight in gold.  Might look up poems before listening, so I can follow along.  Interestingly, 8, I saw another reference to the poetry reading in Anne Gables today :); it's a neat idea, looking up all the poems.

Thanks for all the poetry recs - I'm looking forward to looking them all up.  I read the bio of Tennyson at the Poetry Foundation today and they talked about his focus on sounds - sounds ;) right up my alley.  Re-read Charge of the Light Brigade - don't think I'd noticed before that he's actually positive about the charge being worth something despite it all.  Wrt hymns and psalms (and metrical psalms), I think I ought to prioritize them more.  I do love hymns, but somehow when I'm singing them I treat them entirely differently than I do poetry; somehow I can't sing something and think about it at the same time - it's like mutually exclusive brain pathways or something.  (And usually singing a hymn is more pleasant than thinking through a poem.)  But I've got several memorized, and could write them out and then take a bit to think about them.  And it nice to take the time to think about them, because it makes singing them a richer experience, in a way that wouldn't happen if I only sung them.

Actually, I think I'd be well-served to make a habit of memorizing some poems.  Something about having all the words already in my head gives me a head start in thinking about it, plus you can think about a poem whenever you have a bit of spare time, without needing to have the text with you.  Plus all the repetition involved in memorizing is helpful - gives a lot of opportunity to have thoughts and for things to click.  Also, sheer familiarity tends to promote liking for me - I have happy thoughts when I meet a poem I've met before, just because it's familiar.  Likewise, a poem-a-day habit would be a good one, too - just making a habit of seeing a bit of poetry a day - it adds up.

Quarter Note, thanks for all your enthusiasm and recs and analysis - I particularly enjoyed your post :).

Edited by forty-two
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Oh, also, I got Kwame Alexander's Crossover from the library - got the rec from the thread Lori linked on narrative poetry.  I'm 30 or so pages in.  I really like the ones that are giving a visceral sense of the basketball experience - lots of good language (reminds me of hip-hop a bit) and they are really effective at getting you to feel it.  And I like the little thematic poems that spin off from the main narrative, both the poems themselves and how they spin off from the narrative.  But the poems that are carrying the narrative - they are nice enough, but I don't really understand what makes them poems as such, other than having stanzas #poetryphilistine.

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9 hours ago, forty-two said:

...they are nice enough, but I don't really understand what makes them poems as such, other than having stanzas... 


Often, free verse poems have much more subtle sound devices going on -- slant rhyme (near rhyme), alliteration, assonance, and consonance, plus rhythm. There is also much attention paid to developing imagery, and, of course use of metaphor, as well as some sort of form or structure. (With older poems written in tight forms -- like rhyming couplets, or a sonnet form, or with regular stanza lengths and rhyming patterns, it is much easier to see the form -- free verse creates it's own form for the poem, and it is much looser and freer, but also much more subtle).

The problem with a lot of contemporary young/novice poets that I see is that they do tend to think that a poem is having an epiphany or nice image, and describing it in nice prose with line breaks. A LOT more work goes into creating a good poem than that. 😉  But that's a topic for a whole different thread, lol.

9 hours ago, forty-two said:

...I got Kwame Alexander's Crossover from the library...  I really like the ones that are giving a visceral sense of the basketball experience...


You might like Ross Gay's book Unabashed Catalog of Gratitude. He builds up very clear images, and there is a bounding, free/natural thankfulness that rises up out of these poems -- a very contemporary book of psalms. 😉 

10 hours ago, forty-two said:

Thanks so much for all your responses 🙂.  I have the Koch and MCT books, and started reading the Koch one today.  The Runyan one looks interesting - I remember looking it up when you'd rec'd it on another thread, Lori; I re-read the Billy Collins poem - I do like that one, the image of torturing a poem to get at its meaning rings all too true.   


I've met Tania -- she is SUCH a fun and easy person to talk with, and her book sounds just like her. It's a very easy to read book that doesn't focus on analysis, but on just sitting back and letting the poems speak, and appreciating them. That Billy Collins poem is hilarious.

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On 2/6/2020 at 1:22 AM, Shoes+Ships+SealingWax said:

I only have a moment for now, but I hope to circle back here later. I would strongly recommend Michael Clay Thompson’s book Music of the Hemispheres for a simple introduction to several elements of poetry. The man clearly loves language - it shines through in his work - & there are also skill-based prompts. Poetry is a “low floor, high ceiling” creature... I’ve found that appreciation really blossoms once you’ve wrestled with it yourself. 

I plan on picking up Music of the Hemispheres for next year. I think it will be a good fit for morning time for all of my kids. I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Thompson at a convention workshop last year, where he completely convinced me of the worth and importance of poetry. If you ever get the chance to hear him it is totally worth your while.

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1 hour ago, knitgrl said:

I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Thompson at a convention workshop last year, where he completely convinced me of the worth and importance of poetry. If you ever get the chance to hear him it is totally worth your while.


I would be thrilled to have that opportunity! 

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