“Something Amazing”: On a Prose Writer’s Appreciation of Poetry

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Pieter Brueghel, @1558

I began my writing life as a poet. I had just turned eight. A decade passed, more, and I churned out hundreds of poems, possibly close to a thousand. But I was one of those self-proclaimed poets who never read poetry for pleasure or edification; I read only what I was assigned and only for symbolic and literary analysis. That’s as much preamble as I will give at this point. What is important is that in my early twenties, after a few rough critiques by actual poets and people who “knew” poetry, I pretty much put an end to our relationship–or at least the pretense of a relationship I had with poetry. Another decade passed, and I found myself working on a Ph.D. in fiction writing. Ours was not a multi-genre program, so the one and only poetry course I had to take was not a workshop (O, thank you, lucky stars!) but rather a class that went by the daunting title of Form and Theory of Poetry.

The class was made all the more daunting by its professor, a fussy fellow with a fussy mustache who made no secret of his disdain for the fiction writers in the program. His reputation preceded him, and those of us in fiction held off on taking the class until we could hold off no more. He was demanding, that man. He expected us to memorize things about poetry: dozens upon dozens of terms, scansion (not only the metrics but particularly the theoretical aspects), the centuries-long history of the sonnet and all its transformations, metrical and rhyme schemes for dozens of types of poems (yes, there was a time I knew the sestina’s intricacies without having to look them up). He gave us tests. He made us write explications of poems, 20-paged papers detailing every choice the poet had made, and no, we could not use outside sources. Had the poet used internal rhyme, slant rhyme, eye rhyme, and to what effect? If the poet wrote in blank verse, in which lines did the poem depart from iambic pentameter, what was the metrical departure, and what impact did it have on the reading? How was enjambment used? Why, aside from the obvious grammatical usage, were certain caesurae employed? What sort of stanzas had the poet chosen, and what impact did the breaks have? What about line length? Did lines end on masculine or feminine syllables, and why? And don’t forget, under any circumstances, about alliteration and assonance!

I am telling you it was frightening. He was frightening!

Part of what was frightening, as you may suspect, was that I’d abandoned my relationship with poetry altogether. I could toss off a few quasi-intelligent remarks about Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” or Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” but beyond that, I knew very little. I dreaded that class.

Then that dreaded professor read Robert Frost’s “Birches” aloud. He’d assigned it to us for one of our first class meetings, and I’d read it diligently, several times, something about a boy swinging through trees or something. All I could think was how ill-prepared I was for this class; I felt my own ignorance. But when my professor read the poem, I understood it perfectly. I followed along as he with his sonorous, reverent voice made music—no, poetry—of Frost’s words. I even got the joke.

Poetry—it’s from the oral tradition, right, so wouldn’t it make sense to read it aloud?

One of the two poems I was given to explicate was W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” I confess that I was dumbfounded by it at first, as with most of the poems we read. I was supposed to scan the poem and write a 20-paged explication with no outside sources. I felt like an impostor. I have no idea how many times I had to read the poem—and read it aloud, hearing its music and rhythm—before I started to grasp it. I could pick out its symbols, sure; I’d done that sort of thing bunches of times in high school and college. But what did it mean that Auden had chosen to begin his poem with a line in which the word “they” had no antecedent? What did it mean that he had provided that so-called antecedent in the second line? How did his 21-line poem’s structure echo sonnet structure, and for what reason? You get the drift.

It was a dreadfully difficult class, and much as I came to love the sound of my professor’s voice as he read aloud the poems he had assigned, he remained a dreadfully difficult professor. But damn it, I worked harder than I’d worked in any other class, ever, and I earned A’s on every assignment (this from a professor who didn’t generally give them), and my fiction professor/dissertation director told me he’d gone and praised me behind my back.

This memory came up today after a conversation I had at work with two MFA students in poetry who are set to graduate next spring. I let them know I’d be glad to be on their dissertation committees if they needed another reader. Then I mumbled a disclaimer about how, despite being a prose writer, I’d still be able to give their poetry a fair read even though I wasn’t as familiar blah blah blah. Why, I wondered later, had I taken myself down a notch or two or twenty, diminishing my potential value as a reader of their work? Even though writing poetry doesn’t come naturally to me, the fact is that I know how to read and appreciate it. I know how to plumb its depths. What I learned in Form and Theory of Poetry stays with me to this day, moreso than most of what I learned in my Ph.D. fiction classes.

Today I’d like to share Auden’s beautiful poem with you, one I can almost quote from memory because I long ago had to write that arduous/worthwhile explication. Read the poem aloud, slowly, feeling the music and the meaning of the words. Pause in your reading when you reach a caesura, not when you reach the end of a line. Then have a look at the painting by Brueghel and read the poem all over again.

Once again, I see I’m writing for an audience of prose writers. Poets won’t need the instructions I gave above! But it’s my wish today to have those of us who identify one way or another, poet or prose writer, seek appreciation from a genre we may shy away from. Now click HERE to read Auden’s poem “Musee des Beax Arts”

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