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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 reread prose, but I cannot ever say about a piece of prose, as I almost always say about a poem, that on the first reading, I know I am likely to reread it many times. Not all poems bid this rereading, but the ones I gravitate toward—shorter poems; engaging but not beholden to classical forms; often more evocative than narrative, and often elusive or opaque—seem to have, as part of their very nature, this drawing back.

I want to know what it is like to read poetry, and why I read so much of it. It seems impossible to answer that second question without lapsing into literary functionalism: this is what poetry does for us (for me); these are its effects. Explanations of what I get out of poetry feel a little bit like arguments that praying improves bodily health—possibly true, but secondary to the deepest goods of the endeavor. Still, the functionalist account of what reading poetry does for the reader is not without merit.

Reading poetry makes me a better reader of other things. It makes me a better reader of complicated, dense prose. It makes me more attentive to things on the surface, and to things under the surface. I like reading poetry because, for me, the reading can't be rushed. Too often, I read prose—even novels—extractively, for the nugget of information I need, or the plot resolution I seek. Poetry, like Scripture (which of course contains a good bit of poetry), resists that kind of reading.

I read poetry for the same reason I go to art museums: I don't know where I am when I am there. I don't know much about a painting, or a poem. I have never formally studied poetry or paintings, and I don't feel confident that I know how to read them. Of course, I ascribe to a certain populism: one needn't, or shouldn't need, special training to encounter a picture or a pantoum. But that populist conviction seems only partly true. I do not understand the poetry of Jorie Graham—by which I mean I often don't understand the surface meaning of her words, and I often don't understand what her project is. Poetry can be populist, and at the same time, poetry can be enriched by knowing something about what you are reading and hearing, just as a hike can be enriched by knowing something about the wildflowers you can expect to encounter in western North Carolina in late May, and just as your encounter with any of Picasso's Las Meninas paintings might be enriched by knowing something about the Velázquez painting to which and about which Picasso is speaking.

By some happy accident I now can't reconstruct, shortly after I began reading poetry regularly, I came across English poet Ruth Padel's book 52 Ways of Looking at A Poem, which comprises a year's worth of weekly essays that Padel wrote for The Independent on Sunday. Each essay is a reading of—a teaching about—a contemporary poem, and when I finished reading the book for the first time, I knew something about how little I knew, and I wondered how I would ever read a poem again, especially a contemporary poem, without Padel at my side to tutor me. In addition to introducing me to dozens of poets I'd never heard of, and to poems that still rank among my absolute favorites, such as Selima Hill's utterly wonderful "The World's Entire Wasp Population," Padel taught me how to see and hear some basic things I was previously ignorant of: half-rhyme, for instance, which I had never noticed before. I'm sure there is still much near rhyme or vowel rhyme or consonant rhyme that I miss in the poems I read, but now I at least know to look for it. (Similarly, I had no idea that poets intentionally rhymed words within lines—I thought it was something that happened only at the ends of lines—until Padel helped me see that they do.)

Perhaps it is more accurate to say that specialized knowledge changes rather than necessarily improves one's experience with a poem. I find my enjoyment of poetry deepened by knowledge of internal rhyme. But knowledge can also foreclose. The person who has never heard of Velázquez will have an encounter with Picasso unavailable to someone who has expertise in 17th-century art. It's unlikely that I will ever know enough about poetry to worry about recovering a second naïveté.

In 2014, I attended a lecture by the poet Lisa Russ Spaar. She said that during the eleven years she had served as the director of the University of Virginia MFA program, more or less every week she got a call from a random Virginian asking if she could recommend a poem for a wedding or a funeral. Everyone in the room laughed when Spaar said this. Poems are like priests, I thought. Brought in to decorate a life-cycle event.

But why do people—including people who never read poetry for kicks, people whose last encounter with a poem was tenth-grade British Lit—grasp for a poem when their child marries, or dies? Because the best poems specialize in showing us something we don't usually get to see? (Which is what the best weddings and funerals do.) Or is it something more irreducibly aural? Is it because we think "religious events" should sound like the King James, and—in the absence, usually, of the actual King James—we grasp for other language that sounds esoteric, spiritual, and hard to grasp: poetic language?

We gild our weddings and funerals with poems, I think, because poetry takes us out of the verbal quotidian. The rituals of marriage and bereavement are not quotidian, and we want a soundscape to match.

Rowan Williams (borrowing from the linguist and philosopher Margaret Masterman) writes in The Edge of Words of "extreme language" or "language under pressure":

"Extremity" in language works by pushing habitual or conventional speech out of shape—by insisting on developing certain sorts of pattern (rhyme, assonance, metre), by coupling what is not normally coupled (metaphor, paradox), by undermining surface meanings (irony) or by forcing us to relearn speaking of perceiving (fractured and chaotic language, alienating or puzzling description).

The use of "language under pressure" can be a "means of exploration, invoking associations which may be random in one way, yet generate a steady level of unsettling alternative or supplementary meanings in the margin of simple lexical sense." Williams does not mean only sonnets and villanelles—much theological prose is clearly language under pressure, language "in extreme situations," as is much scientific prose—but maybe it can be said, without too much flattening and caricature, that different genres specialize in different things, and poetry specializes in linguistic extremity. Perhaps most necessarily, poetry specializes in the extremity called metaphor—or, more broadly, in the extremity of figurative language.

As soon as I say that—as soon as I claim "coupling what is not normally coupled" as one of poetry's specialties—I want to qualify the claim and hem it in: all writing trades in metaphorical language (see "hem it in," in the previous line), and maybe all language is figurative. Yet precisely because metaphor is the richness of language, without it, a poem is scarcely a poem. The rereading poetry often demands is in part about grasping the metaphor.

In the stack of new poetry books currently on my desk, metaphor abounds. Chloe Honum's wonderful The Tulip-Flame considers centrally the speaker's mother's suicide. From the first lines of the book, in a poem called "Spring," Honum gives us the mother's depression through sensory, tactile metaphor, metaphor we can feel: "Mother tried to take her life. / The icicles thawed. / The house, a wet coat / we couldn't put back on." The suicide attempt was unsuccessful, but its failure did not erase the landscape of depression. That last sentence, its ham-fisted gloss on the poem, may be the strongest argument for poetry: why do I wish to say, with my awkward abstractions, what Honum said so aptly with her wet coat? (Once in a while, Honum's metaphors elude me. Why, besides continuing the poem's oceanic trope, does "Alone with Mother" render the mother's car keys as "a silver starfish in her lap"? Maybe on my fifth reading, I will see why. Or maybe not.)

Claudia Emerson's Impossible Bottle—a posthumously published volume; I gather many of the poems written while the author had cancer—likens metastasis to a web, a tree house, and the James River. "Metastasis: The James" in particular seems the perfect way to say, without hatred but still with violence, what cancer does:

all afterthought this late
morning it takes
another town's rain into
itself for itself

I read those lines, and think of my mother's cancer—the actual cancer, not her experience of it, or her death—for the first time in years.

Another of poetry's specialties is the turn, or the reversal—the sudden, surprising turn, or the gradual walk-with-you-around-the-bend-in-the-road turn. Foremost, sonnets turn. The sonnet most often used to illustrate this characteristic reversal is Shakespeare's Sonnet 130, wherein the poet devotes twelve lines to explaining that his beloved meets no contemporary standards of beauty or charm, and is uglier and clunkier and louder than every other woman he knows:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

What kind of jerk is this narrator? the reader is wondering—and then, in the last two lines, the poem turns:

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

I have to admit that it was only a year ago that I learned that sonnets reverse themselves. I was attending a presentation by the poet Susan Sink, and until Sink told our group that sonnets definitionally turn, all I knew about the sonnet's form was 14 lines and iambic pentameter. When Sink said that sonnets always revise or undo themselves at the end, I wondered, "How did I miss this? What was I doing during all those middle school English classes?" (Actually, I did not wonder that. As with my little story about reading poetry because I was too tired to read Proust, the self-effacing suggestion that I blamed my ignorance on my own woolgathering and not on Mr. Smith's hobbled instruction is an effort to seem humble and capable of self-mockery. In reality, when Susan Sink taught me about the sonnet's reversal, I immediately assumed that none of my English teachers had ever mentioned it—possibly they had not known it themselves—and I cursed them.)

Regardless of who's to blame for my learning so late that even more than iambic pentameter, the concluding reversal makes a sonnet, it was a stunning piece of knowledge suddenly to have. Sonnets instantly got more interesting. Now I read a lot of them, and my experience of reading them is different: I still think the narrator of Sonnet 130 is a jerk, but now I am on the lookout for the turn, wondering from the start what kind of turn it will be. An understanding of a poem's form shapes the reading experience: a sonnet-reader who knows about the form will anticipate the turn, just as the reader who knows about limericks will, from the first line, try to guess what clever rhyming word will conclude line five.

Of course, a poem needn't be a sonnet to turn. In her staggering second book Fanny Says, Nickole Brown concocts poem after poem about her grandmother, a woman who raised seven children and had her teeth pulled when she was 36 and taught her granddaughters that to get a man, you had to always put on your face before leaving the house (and to keep him, you'd better have that face on before he came home). Not all Brown's poems turn, but "Your Monthly" does, right away:

Your Monthly
is what her mama called it. But what I want is a word for the year she bled
freely, a wad of old washrags, each end pinned to a belt around her waist,
a word for twelve happy deaths, each unfertilized cell that washed out
saying, Not yet, Fanny, you still just a child yourself.

The poem goes on in its quest, seeking a word for Fanny's last year of childhood, in which she learned to "walk / in red shoes pulled from some rich lady's trash," a word "for the time before / a man swaggered in, bought her a dime-story Coke":

A year later, she was expecting—though what exactly I was expecting, she told me,
I couldn't have said. A word, please, somebody give me, for that season with her uterus
small and tight as an inedible green pear, her body keening and cramped in its stall.
A word for all things not yet stretched to bits, a word for all things not yet broken,
a word for all things left unbroken, a word for breakable yet unbroken things,
a word for unbroken expectant things. Tell me, what is that word?

To be sure, what energizes this poem is not only the opening turn. After the turn in the second sentence, from mama's terminology to the thing for which mama had no words, the poem goes on to juxtaposition (of the euphemism of the title with the blunt "uterus," which is juxtaposed again with the startling simile of the unripe pear), anaphora (repetition of a word or phrase at a sentence or line's opening, in this case "A word"—which emphasizes that which is repeated, and creates rhythm), and repetition (the occluding euphemism for pregnancy, "expecting," turning into "unbroken expectant things"). Then finally the poem poses silence: the speaker's inability—and the reader's inability—to answer the question the poem asks. "Your Monthly" is the second poem in Fanny Says, and it's crucial for the whole of the book: the shadow it casts makes it impossible for Fanny's life, as it unfolds in Brown's poems, to seem a sentimental Appalachian set-piece. But the poem stands on its own, too, an indictment that indicts precisely through what it cannot find a way to say.

The aural and linguistic daring that makes a poem a poem—rhyme, meter, and all the intricate patterning of sound and sense—sometimes shows up in prose. But a prose stylist must be more sparing about her prosody, because often the repeated sound and the hoof-fall of meter, say, can distract from rather than enhance what prose is mean to give (a finely shaped narrative line; information; forward movement). For sound and delight, I will keep reading poetry.

Lauren F. Winner is assistant professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School. She is the author most recently of Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God (HarperOne).

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