Fat Books & Thin Women

Ways of Reading Poetry, & My Favorite Poem
December 3, 2010, 7:02 pm
Filed under: meme, Poetry | Tags: , , , , ,

My feelings about poetry have been, for most of my life, mixed at best. I’ve almost always had a very visceral, negative reaction to poetry; for the way it was taught, for the pressure to find “symbols” in every line, for the way every poem either baffled me with the heights its phrasing reached or with the insipid tone of its rhymes.

Literary Blog Hop
This is, then, about halfway an answer to the question at The Blue Bookcase about favorite poems, and halfway a response to my own question of why I’ve felt the way I do about poetry for so long, and why it’s starting to change.

Part of my inherent dislike of poetry is, I think, nothing more than a matter of accessibility. It’s very possible to consider yourself widely read today, but not to read poems, because you’re unlikely to walk into a chain bookstore and see a display of poetry titles, or to see a book of poems prominently advertised on Amazon’s main page, or to open a magazine and find a poem. They’re a form of writing that has long seemed to me to be removed from every day life, and I think that is one reason that for so much of my life I have regarded poems with thinly veiled disgust.

In the past few years I’ve come around to classics, some of which I was turned off of in high school, and a big reason that I began to seek out classic novels is that I already read a lot of prose. I mean, constantly. At some point it occurred to me that when I wasn’t satisfied with contemporary writing I could turn to “proven” novels, and so the shift to more classics reading was natural. I’ve written a little bit about how I think forcing classics on high schoolers can backfire (is there a way less likely to bring about appreciation for a book than by forcing it on a group of fifteen-year-olds?), and I suspect my dislike of poetry grew out of nothing more than disliking being forced to read poetry in high school and college, and feeling stupid for not understanding it the way my teachers wanted me to.[1]

That I’m replying to this Literary Blog Hop question at all probably seems weird by now[2] but I swear, I’m approaching my favorite poem.

I’ve also mentioned on here that I was studying for the literature GRE for a while (actually, it’s why I started this blog – so I could record all my wise thinkings on books – ha, ha), and it’s that that has started to bring me around on poetry. I didn’t like being forced to pick up the sort of cocktail party knowledge required for the GRE, but as I studied I started to read poems and poets I wouldn’t have otherwise heard of. Thanks to this dumb test I can finally see a question like “What’s your favorite poem?” and think of not one but several answers.

The ones that pop into my head are Christopher Marlowe’s “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” Matthew Arnold’s “On Dover Beach,” John Keat’s “Isabella” (maybe the weirdest poem I read for the GRE), Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Windhover,” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

But the first poem, the very first, that I thought of when I saw this question, is Carl Sandburg‘s “Chicago.” It is so gritty and realistic and, for lack of a better word, so true, so natural in its rhythm and language, so readable, that it was the first poem I can remember reading that made me realize that poetry does not have to be some lofty and inaccessible form of writing, but can express things like a city’s industry and feel, and the lives of people who aren’t sipping hot toddies but who are working and hungry and occasionally sinful. And I also love the strength of Chicago’s character in this poem. It actually reminded me, a little bit, of Philadelphia (my own city), in lines like “so I turn once more to those who / sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer.”

     HOG Butcher for the World,
     Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
     Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
     Stormy, husky, brawling,
     City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
     have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
     luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
     is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
     kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
     faces of women and children I have seen the marks
     of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
     sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
     and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
     so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
     job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
     little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
     as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
          Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
     white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
     man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has
     never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse.
     and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
     Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
     Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
     Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

[1]I may be a decent reader, whatever that is, but there are few things I dislike more than being forced to look for symbolism, which is where a lot of my high school poetry reading leaned. What’s that frog symbolize? A frog! I always wanted to say. Back to text

[2] And it is a little bit, but this has been a long week of daily spelling bees (I mean, not one a day, but like four to eight hours of spelling bees a day), traveling to villages all over my region, spending a tenth of my December living allowance to copy participation certificates, and crushed dreams of having the energy to read at night, so I don’t have any posts to write about books I’ve read, because I don’t even have the energy to crack a Sarah Dessen at this point. Back to text