Updated: Mar 5
Gateway Poems for the Poetry Hater
In Alan Bennett’s History Boys, Hector states that “the best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - that you’d thought special, particular to you and here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, someone who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”. Poetry offers company and solace through shared humanity. Those who claim to hate poetry have yet to find themselves in it. So, if you have long since decided poetry’s just not for you, I hope you can identify with some of the sentiments in this small selection.
For this tragic widespread illness, we have only high school English Literature to blame. The prescriptive way we were taught to over-analyse every full stop leads people to view studying poetry as a pointless and irrelevant exercise. Abandon the rules and forget what you were told to notice. Just feel the poem. First, I prescribe ‘Snow’ (1967) by Louis MacNeice. All of his work warrants a read, but this poem is a particular gem. MacNeice reflects on how the mundanest of things can remind you of the variety of life, for the “world is suddener than we fancy it”. If you’re feeling lost and disillusioned with the world, ‘Snow’ will encourage you to look to the minutiae of the everyday to unearth the feeling of “the drunkenness of things being various”.
Another root of this aversion to poetry is its perceived difficulty — the effort is not worth the reward. While I’d argue the contractual nature of poetry plays a part in its beauty, I can understand the annoyance at its sometimes challenging nature. So, fear not, I have steered well clear of T.S. Eliot (if you or a loved one has been traumatised by studying ‘The Waste Land’, you may be entitled to financial compensation). My next recommendation is Frank O’Hara’s ‘Having a Coke with You’(1971). Strikingly prosaic, rhyme, metre, and form are practically non-existent in this poem, which reads like a frank conversation with a lover. It doesn’t even begin with a capital letter. Its complete departure from poetic convention and colloquial tone render it a raw and rambling outpouring of emotion. With O’Hara termed a “poet among painters”, like much of his other work, this poem somehow feels distinctly visual, like a montage of images. There is nothing dense to wade through or unpack; it’s an experience which expertly demonstrates the power of poetry to momentarily transport you elsewhere.
My next choice is for those who do not believe in poetry that doesn’t rhyme and long for a return to the poetry of their childhood. Reminiscent of our first introductions to poetry in primary school, ‘The Orange’ (1992) by Wendy Cope has a regular rhyme scheme and lively rhythm. Yet, no substance is lost in its simplicity, which only serves to heighten its life-affirming message. It explores the welcome feeling of peace and contentment following a period of sadness: “that orange, it made me so happy, as ordinary things often do”. For those in need of comfort, Cope’s poetry offers refuge in turbulent times.
The pretentious nature of poetry is another common complaint; the lashings of obscure allusions and symbols which exclude the common reader and require several degrees to be deciphered. For this reason, it seems that the older the poetry, the more ardently it is avoided by the poetry hater. The “father of free verse” Walt Whitman is a perfect example of a revered poet whose poetry remains unaffected in subject matter and style. ‘O me! O Life’ (1867) is a rousing poem with an eminently human concern: the meaning of life. The speaker expresses pessimism about the seemingly futile nature of existence. For Whitman, the solution is not forced optimism, but instead remembering “that you are here–that life exists and identity, that the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse”.
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