I never learned to love poetry
I never learned to love poetry. On the contrary – every time poetry came up at school, all it did was bore us and later on, faintly embarrass us (all that soppy stuff on love and passion! A poem on flowers – yawn! Poetry on dead people! How bizarre. Poetry on wars?! wtf?!?). And always the same questions. ‘What did the poet mean?’ – ‘What rhyming scheme was used?’ – ‘What literary devices can you make out?’ – ‘What is the historical context of this poem?’ – … ENOUGH ALREADY! While I generally read at the same pace as I was able to eat chocolate ice-cream (= very fast) and in amounts that sometimes seemed equally unhealthy to my family, I never touched poetry. I didn’t see what the fuss was about. I didn’t see it until I read Leonard Cohen.
I’d listened to Cohen’s songs since my early teens, and they were some of the first reasons that I really went through the struggle of applying my school-taught English to a specific task (understanding the lyrics; ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ in particular). I’d never considered the lyrics as poetry though. So one day, as I looked through the books in my Dad’s study, I came across a collection of Cohen’s poems. The ones he transformed into song, and even more that were just poems. I sat down on the floor and started reading. By then my English was good enough to get at least the gist of most of them.
And what a gist it was! It blew my brain. There were images that I could see without ever having seen them, sensory explosions in my mind as the written words travelled through my eyes into my brain! And the rhythms… and none of it rhymed or was forced or dealt with any high-brow topic – just a guy talking about the women he had loved, who had left him and who he missed and hated at the same time… just talking about this personal stuff, so very vulnerable and in such simple words, and yet every single thing he said was universal and I could understand it – no, not just understand it, feel it – even though I couldn’t be more of an opposite to him – female, two generations removed, grown up in a different culture and time, not even having really been in love before… And yet, I GOT what he said with every fibre of my bone.
It was a revelation.
I’ve stayed true to the master, and I will defend to the end my opinion that he is one of the greatest poets that ever lived, but he also helped me to appreciate other poets. I’ve bought books full of poetry; anthologies and books by individual poets. I read poetry online. I listen to the poetry of songs. A new poem finds its way into my mailbox every morning and reading it has become a treasured part of my morning routine. Hell, I even write poetry myself! And since that time, the only criterion that I use when approaching a poem is this: does it resonate with me?
That is the only thing you really need to teach about poetry in school: to read a great deal and a great variety and to pay attention to what each poem does with you. All the rest will follow by itself. I wish they’d taught me that. I might not have missed out on years and years of enjoying beauty.
I’d like to read
one of the poems
that drove me into poetry
I can’t remember one line
or where to look
The same thing
happened with money
girls and late evenings of talk
Where are the poems
that led me away
from everything I loved
to stand here
naked with the thought of finding thee
(Leonard Cohen – I’d like to read )