Learning to Love Poetry: Read to Me

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Elizabeth Allen

Staff Writer

Lifelong book lover, Elizabeth Allen managed to get a degree in something completely unrelated that she never intends to use. She’s a proud Connecticut native who lives in a picturesque small town with her black olive-obsessed toddler daughter, her prom date-turned-husband, and her two dim-witted cats Penny Lane and Gretchen Wieners. She spends her days trying to find a way to be paid to read while drinking copious amounts of coffee, watching episodes of Gilmore girls until the DVDs fail, waiting for her husband to feed her, and being obnoxiously vain about her hair. Elizabeth’s work can be found at www.blackwhitereadbooks.com, where she is currently reading and reviewing all of the books referenced in Gilmore girls. She is also the cohost of two podcasts discussing the work of Amy Sherman-Palladino (“Under the Floorboards” and “Stumbling Ballerinas”). Basically, her entire goal in life is to be a bookish Lorelai Gilmore. She clearly dreams big. Twitter: @BWRBooks

For years, I’ve identified myself as “not really a poetry person.” I have friends who love poetry. Friends who are, themselves, poets. People whose opinions on the written word I trust implicitly; they would recommend a novel or a memoir to me and I’d be instantly sold. But if they mentioned a book of poems…hard pass. I know I hadn’t given poetry a fair shot, but I did try. Somewhat. I sat down, attention fully on the page, trying desperately to understand the life-changing, soul-lifting nuance people saw in Pablo Neruda, E.E. Cummings, Rupi Kaur. I will admit to feeling…intellectually diminished when I’d try to really grasp poetry’s purpose. I felt like I was possibly just too dumb to understand. I had given in to the fact that I would remain “not really a poetry person” and was okay with that. Whatever…there are enough books in the world. What’s wrong with being able to cross a few off your list?

That is, until the moment I realized that is was all in how I consumed it. A few weeks back, my husband and daughter had decided to go to our cabin in upstate New York for the weekend. Ah, glorious! An entire weekend to myself! With all that free time stretched out in front of me, I fell into that trap where anything and everything seemed possible. As I was attending a book trivia night inspired by 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die at my local independent bookstore, a few people asked if I would be attending the poetry reading the next night. Now, normally that’s something I’d reject outright, but a friend mentioned that he was possibly going to be reading that night. And I had all that gorgeous free time. Mr. Obligation and Ms. Opportunity took hold of me and I said I’d be there.

The entire day, I dreaded attending the event. It was going to be an evening of my least favorite art form, while I had to plaster a smile across my face and clap along.

But I went.

And I’m so thankful that I did.

The event was to celebrate my hometown awarding its very first poet laureate. She and some of the runners up would be sharing with us their work. I hunkered down into my seat, sipping my clear plastic glass of Pinot Grigio, hoping the alcohol would quickly set in and make me feel more magnanimous about the whole evening.

As the new poet laureate cracked open her black leather portfolio and began to read, I was utterly transformed. Suddenly, poetry became a narrative art that I didn’t have to struggle to parse for subtext and symbolism. As it came out of her mouth, it was all right there for me to grab out of the air. I could identify and appreciate the artistic choices she and the other poets made as they conveyed a feeling, a moment, a thought. I could appreciate their use of language. I fully grasped their message and delighted in the imagery and…was very confused. Why was this suddenly making sense to me?

And then it hit me…it’s all about the method by which it was received. When I look at poetry on a page, I’m easily distracted. I don’t apply the right intonation to the words, don’t read them with the correct rhythm. But spoken, suddenly an entirely new world is open to me. I’m brought to tears by a single word choice. I feel empowered and enthralled as the poem ends and I absorb its full message. This happens regularly when I read prose, but I never thought I’d understand how other people felt the same way about poetry.

All of this to say, if you feel there is a particular form of literature that you just don’t get, try it a different way. Ask someone to read it to you. Think about picking it up in short bursts (this is something I learned is best for me when reading short stories). Consider flipping the ways in which you’d normally consume the text. It’s possible that it just might not be for you. But it’s also possible that an entirely new form of literature opens itself to you and changes your life.

Do you have any examples of a small difference changing the entire way you experience a form of literature?