How I Learned to Like Poetry

Three years ago I made a new year’s resolution to learn to understand and appreciate poetry. I went about it in a fairly academic way. That’s how I learned to adore contemporary art—taking art history classes with some brilliant and endearing professors until I was one class short of an art history minor. Those classes were a great investment of my time, because I learned a hobby (devotion? meditation?) that I have taken with me around the world and continue to use to enrich my mental health and personal life.

I figured since that since the academic route to enjoying visual art was so successful, poetry wouldn’t be much different. Western art survey classes usually start with those famous cave paintings in Lascaux, France, and go forward from there. Poetry’s equivalent of cave painting is Beowulf, I supposed, so that’s where I started.

I supplemented my Norton Anthology of Poetry roadmap with The Poem and the Journey. I’m sure, as advertised, it’s a fantastic book that teaches people a lot about the beauty of poetry. I didn’t get past chapter 2.

I heard a poem on the radio by Billy Collins, the then U.S. Poet Laureate. It was funny, accessible, easy to take in while hurling through space at 80 miles per hour. My poet friend Jeevan Narney chose to look at the wall rather than my face when I told him that I had checked out all of the Billy Collins books from the library. He pursed his lips and suggested that I try Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Li-Young Lee.

I did, and he was right. I read white-bread poets because they were easy to get ahold of, not because I actually enjoyed them. I enjoyed the act of appearing to enjoy poetry. But honestly, there’s a whole world of poetry out there that is more intriguing than your garden-variety hothouse-tomatoes poetry, and that’s when I started to be able to fulfill my resolution.

Three years later and here’s what I’ve come to learn about my tastes:
I like poems like I like art. Preferably written after WWII. Knowingly and carefully breaking the rules. At least two paths of discussion from one object. Aware of history, yet not ostentatious about it.

I like poems like I like authors. I am fascinated by Asian and Asian-American authors. I know the word Asian encompasses millions, literally millions, of cultures, and I haven’t found a boring one yet. I like how Asian religions and cultural priorities tinge the perception of the world in a way that is very different from my own.

I like poems like I like puns. Two meanings for the price of one. A period in the middle of a line is just divine. If you don’t read poetry very much, oftentimes punctuation in the middle of a line means that the words that come before the punctuation finish the thought of the previous line, and start the thought of the next one. For example:
The river is raw tonight. The river is a calling
aching with want. The woman walks towards it
(excerpt from How to Prepare the Mind for Lightning by Brynn Saito)
I like poems like I like scriptures. When I read the Bible in the mornings, I usually need to read a passage two or three times, just to get my mind to settle, to focus, to absorb its density. When I meditate or run, I can usually only think about a few heavy words, and that’s enough for me. If I don’t want to read a poem twice or three times in a row, I probably just don’t want to read that poem.

I subscribe to A Poem a Day in my email and it’s been wonderful. You get contemporary poetry during the week, and more traditional poetry on the weekends. It’s become meditative for me to read it in the mornings. This morning on the bus I was so happy that I was able to be mentally closed off to everything that was going on around me (it was chaos, I assure you), and I focused on the poem for 20 minutes without breaking my concentration. Not because I was forcing myself to do that, but because it happened naturally. Because I learned how I like poetry.

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