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Lauren F. Winner


Why I Read Poetry

"Language under pressure."

For the last seven or eight years, the thing I have read most often and most eagerly—more than history books, or novels, or short stories, or nerdy academic monographs, or The Economist—is contemporary poetry. The joking story I have sometimes told about why I started reading contemporary poetry is: I was in a crushing season at work, I was exhausted when I fell into bed, and I mistakenly thought, "Poems are short; I can read one or two in less time with less attention than I could read a chapter of a novel! Ha, ha; little did I know that reading one poem takes the same time and attention as reading two chapters! Ha, ha." This story is self-effacing (and thus aims to unsettle some of the affectation of the whole endeavor), and it is mostly not true.

It is true that when I began reading poetry, I underestimated the attention required. But that estimation wasn't why I began to stuff the bookshelf next to my bed with Kate Clanchy and Jehanne Dubrow and A. E. Stallings and Franz Wright. I started reading poetry because I had known, for some time, that what interested me most when reading prose was sound and wordplay: the small, surprising turn of phrase; the judicious use of anaphora and parallelism. In other words, what interested me most in prose was what we were taught in middle school to call "poetic devices" (including, confusingly, "prosody"). And so, I thought, finally, in addition to this steady diet of voicey prose writers who share my fondness for epistrophe, why not read some actual poets?

I began to read poetry because the rhyme, the meter, and the attention to etymology delighted me. Reading a poem is like watching language do what a body does when it spins a triple pirouette.

When I first read a poem, I know I am going to read it again. The first reading is so blind as to barely qualify as a reading—if a second and third and ninth reading don't happen, the first one never did, either. I often ...

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