How to develop an acquired taste for verse

Written by Katie Schmidt

So you’ve turned the page on poetry. Perhaps it was the sickly-sweet taste of too many rhyming words, perhaps you got annoyed in school for having to untangle ideas that seemed to be written as confusingly as possible, or perhaps you came to the conclusion that every reader who has ever fallen asleep over a book has thought: boring, irrelevant, outdated, zzzz.

You’re right. Though I’d like to persuade you that you’re also wrong. If you’ve ever been even a teeny bit curious about what the deal is with poetry—why people have been making it, listening to it, and reading it ever since humans were writing things down (and probably before that)—then stick around while I share my thoughts on why you should stop reading this essay and go read some poetry instead.

I love poetry. I like to read it, write it, send it to my friends, recite it at inappropriate social occasions, but that doesn’t mean I love all poetry and it definitely doesn’t mean I understand all the poetry I read. Sure, there’s a reason why great poems are considered great—maybe its for revolutionizing poetry of its day, maybe its for mastering elements of poetic metre (patterns of word sounds) or rhetorical devices (word games)—but reading poetry isn’t about just good or bad, it’s more like eating cheese. Some cheese is mild and delicious and easy to bite into:

More and more frequently the edges
of me dissolve and I become
a wish to assimilate the world, including
you, if possible through the skin
like a cool plant’s tricks with oxygen
(Margaret Atwood, “More and More”)

And some is too stinky to keep in the house … more of an acquired taste.

Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,
As time her taught, in lowly Shepheards weeds,
Am now enforst a far unfitter taske,
(Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene)

It’s easy to be discouraged when you pick up what is considered to be a great poem and the language feels like it immediately shuts you out. Leave those poems behind for now.

And start here: Poetry is about personal connection, about beauty and truth, and the infinite possibilities of language to shape how we see the world. It’s about reading a line that makes something in you click and think, Yes, that is true for me. That said something I’ve never thought but somehow known all this time.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
(Wendell Berry, “Mad Farmer Liberation Front”)

I like to think of poets as searchers, as people translating into language experiences we encounter and we try to find words for but where we come up short.

Joy, grief, inexplicable sadness, anger, love, wonder—those words mean nothing compared with what it is to feel those things.

Poetry is about getting at that. At peeling back the layers of our everyday language and finding truer ways of saying; truer but also stranger, more beautiful. To read it is to explore and celebrate being, experiencing, and that fickle thing, meaning. A search that leads back to the greatest question and answer: God and expressing the presence of God in our lives.

I found my way to God through poetry in the words of an old German poet:

I want to unfold.
Nowhere do I want to remain folded,
because where I am bent and folded, there I am lie.
And I want my meaning
true for you.
(Rilke, “Ich bin auf der Welt zu allein”)

This poem named for me the desire to represent myself honestly and truly before others and before God, and helped me to see poetry as a way of exploring this new awareness. Since then, poetry has been a companion in my life. Their words help me think about myself, about the world, about God. These poems have become truer over time; their meanings change as I change.

Here’s my advice: In the world of birding (to bring up another confounding interest), aficionados describe getting into birding by finding their “spark bird”—the bird that inspires them to think “wow I want to stare at birds a whole lot now.”

So, find your spark poem. Or even, your spark line of a poem. Maybe you like one of the words, maybe it’s particularly delicious to say aloud, maybe it hints at something that’s tugging at you that you don’t quite understand yet.

And sit with it. Reread it aloud. Ask your friends what they think about it. Let the meaning come to you gradually.

Poetry is as old as recorded language, and it’s been written on every topic and in every style imaginable. People have written retaliation poems (the original rap battles), poems about war and rebellion, poems that serve as political propaganda, poems about dying, about love, lost love, and love re-found. Poems about race, being an outsider, and animals; about bodily functions, about sex, and, of course, near endless poems about God.

These poems are in every style, ranging from the brutal and beautiful:

Two birds loved
in a flurry of red feathers
like a burst cottonball,
continuing while I drove over them.
I am a good driver, nothing shocks me.
(Michael Ondaatje, “Driver’s License”)

To the tender and personal: 

You do not have to be good
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves.
(Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”)

When I read Rilke’s poem for the first time, I thought of it as a poem about myself. It starts, “I am too alone in the world and yet not alone enough / to make each hour holy.” Feeling lonely but not a useful kind of artistic or religious solitude. I related to that. “I am too small in the world, and yet not small enough / to stand before you like a thing, dark and shrewd.” Feeling insignificant but not like the humility that Jesus modeled. That’s me too.

As I re-read the poem throughout the years, I noticed a large detail I’d been overlooking: the “you” in the poem. The speaker is not just describing themselves, but describing themselves to someone else. I realized that as much as this poem is about finding who you are, it’s equally about finding God—that someone else.

These two searches are bound together: in searching for myself, I find God. In searching for God, I find myself. The poem didn’t just teach me about these parallel journeys, but taught me about the beauty of them through language that, in its simplicity and strangeness, gave me new ways, new images with which to think about the world. That for me is the power of poetry.

Find you spark poem: Where to start

Accounts on Instagram (one I like is @poetryisnotaluxury)

Websites devoted to poetry like Canadian Poetry Online and the Poetry Foundation. (The latter has an encyclopedia of most well-known poets and has curated collections of poetry around themes so that it’s easy to find poems that are relevant to you.)

Pick up a collection of poetry at a used bookstore or library. Physical copies are great for underlining lines you like and writing notes in the margins (not in the library books of course!).

Or you can start here, by reading work by the excellent poets published in Issue 54 of Love is Moving.