The 12+12 Books of Christmas #19

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If you are new to reading poetry, I would recommend you start with something like Reading Poetry by Tom Furniss and Michael Bath. Not many people read poetry anymore, which is a shame, so you might want to start with the basics. There are few things better for your language skills, thinking and just pure enjoyment than poetry. Furniss and Bath argue that

the debate over poetic form has to be seen in terms of […] a long-standing debate in philosophy and linguistics over the nature of language itself. […] Whereas Locke and others assume that ideas pre-exist language (for Locke they are derived from sensory impressions) and are simply named by language, Saussure argues that ideas are shaped or even produced by the language system itself.

The above quotation distills the history of the philosophy of language into a few lines and covers a lot of ground, from John Locke (1632-1704) to Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), but it makes an important point. You are not in complete control of your words and thoughts. You have been infected by a virus that guides some of the things you say and do. That virus is the language spoken in your surrounding culture. You use it to think and speak even though it is not of you in any true sense. Poetry forces you to think about this fact of life from different angles. Even if that was the only thing poetry did, it would be worth your time.

If you don’t know where to begin and you read English, start with Shakespeare. From there you can go on to different places in the English canon. I would probably go for Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley next. When you come across interesting but difficult poets, you will need some help from theorists and critics. You will have to study, but that’s a good thing. The more you deepen your knowledge of poetry, the more poetry will give you. Very much like if you know even a little bit of music theory, listening to Bach is a vastly more enjoyable experience than listening to him without any knowledge of music. As you move along, you will bump into many incomprehensible poets and even those who seem to write as if their poetry is not written to be understood. This is normal.

Mallarmé and the Art of Being Difficult by Malcolm Bowie is a fascinating study about what it means to read poetry when you don’t stress meaning too much. That is, when the question “What does the poem mean?” isn’t that important. Poetry isn’t a puzzle to be solved–there are poems like this, but they are the exception. Poetry is more like a space where you can observe ideas fly by and interact. Sometimes you really have to let go of the human need to understand to see this. Bowie writes of Mallarmé:

Mallarmé makes us think again about the directions in which artistic coherence may be pursued and the verbal methods by which it may be articulated. He invites us to take risks. He exposes us to a special kind of anxiety by making it extremely hard for us to extract an idea from a text in a simple, manageable form: we are forced to leave it where it was, hedged about and baffled by its cognates, collaterals and contraries. What at one moment can seem a compressed and richly interfused set of meanings can the next seem a frightening turmoil of disconnected scraps.

You can read poets like Mallarmé and think he’s not being very  nice to the reader by bogarting his meaning. On the other hand, if you don’t attack poetic language as a problem to be solved, you will actually gain some pleasure out of his poetry. Besides, there are more ways of reading than one. Learning to read poets like him is yet another weapon in your arsenal.

2 Responses to “The 12+12 Books of Christmas #19”


  1. 1 Darren December 24, 2015 at 06:35

    This post is fucking good and pretty insightful. I’ve been thinking that I should start reading poetry, so it was nice to find this


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