As another National Poetry Month draws to a close I’m reminded that I majored in English in college with a focus on poetry in spite of the fact that in high school I had one of the world’s worst English teachers. That’s the kind of irony someone like Ogden Nash or, hey, me, could turn into a poem, and maybe I will one of these days, but decades later it still rankles me a little. What made her so terrible is how she’d go on and on about poetry as a high rarefied art that mere high school students couldn’t understand. She focused on William Carlos Williams’s The Red Wheelbarrow:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
And she’d go on at length about how this was a deeply meaningful and profound poem but that it would be futile for any of us to try and understand it because we didn’t have the education, and, now that I think about it, she obviously didn’t have the education either because she wasn’t sharing any insights.
I understand if you’re thinking that maybe she was being clever and trying to get us to seek out information on our own by using reverse psychology. Maybe she wanted us to do some independent study and find that Williams was emphatically reacting against the difficult and obscure poets that had come before him. The French Symbolist Stephane Mallarme, for instance, felt that poetry should be difficult to understand; he even said that poetry, like music, should require special training to be read, but he was missing the fact that while it takes training to read music anyone who can hear can listen to it.
Anyway the sad fact my teacher just happened to be a terrible teacher who didn’t know what she was talking about. A few years after I graduated from high school, after I’d gone to college and studied poetry, I met her and we started talking about William Carlos Williams, and she insisted that The Red Wheelbarrow was full of deep and obscure meaning, and that This Is Just To Say was borderline pornographic. I kid you not.
What also got me thinking about this is an article in The New Criterion that starts with this:
A subscriber to this magazine writes with a problem: “Although I have advanced university degrees, I have never ‘gotten’ poetry.”
And I get it. A lot of it is the way poetry is taught. It’s taught as though it’s some rarefied art and if you don’t get it you’re either uneducated or you’re deficient in some way or maybe you’re just stupid. Let me be blunt: you’re not. Most poetry is not as hard to understand as some teachers and literary critics would like you to think, and I’d even argue that none of it should be. Poetry may use language in unusual ways, or it may not, but it shouldn’t be out of anyone’s reach. Yes, there are a lot of layers and nuances to poetry but you don’t necessarily need to know your iambs from your anapests or the difference between metonymy and synechdoche to appreciate poetry.
Let me put it another way: if you have a smartphone, or, as most people now call them, a phone, you probably know how to use it. You don’t need to know how it works, how it’s made. You don’t need to know how to build one yourself. There are ways you could learn all that if you wanted to but, again, it’s not necessary to get your phone to do what you need it to do.
The same is somewhat true of poetry. The barrier to entry is just much lower. If the words on the page or, if it’s a spoken poem, that you hear are meaningful to you, if you enjoy them, then you get it.