THRILL-RIDE (OR, HOW I LEARNED TO ENJOY POETRY)
By Amanda Ghazale Aziz
Online, you’ve seen poetry shared to express reprieve, a shift in seasons, global mood. On the runway, Pierpaolo Piccioli commissioned four poets: Greta Bellamacina, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Mustafa the Poet, and Robert Montgomery, to collaborate with him on his Valentino Fall/Winter 2019 collection, resulting in a booklet for the Paris Fashion Week show called On Love. In the booklet’s forward, Piccioli writes: “Poetry is the most intimate expression of freedom. Because freedom is what we all need now. Because ‘we do not want to be so dreamless now.’” Embroidered stanzas from the poems grace the collection’s coats, dresses, and tops. On screen, in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, William Carlos Williams’s spiritual successor (Adam Driver) moonlights as a bus driver by day, seven days a week, carrying his notebook to jot down observations wherever he goes. On the ‘gram, hot covers of chapbooks face the camera as they pose on someone’s desk, sofa, or bedsheets, with the occasional manicured hand caressing on its spine if the reader is feeling extra cute that day.
Perhaps you’ve heard that a poem can capture a feeling. Or, that you were in search of a poem to describe the looming threat of a crater one day splitting this earth into a thousand million puzzle pieces–– or!–– a crater did in fact split the earth, and in its wreckage it ripped through your heart, making you wonder whether it’s even worth salvaging whatever’s left of it because none of the pieces connect no matter how hard you click them together, and despite not knowing what will happen next, you do know that what you need right now is for someone else to articulate it for you all at once in the most hyperbolic way possible.
Maybe you wanted to read poetry because people in your life are reading it and you’re curious to find out if the hype is real? Curiosity–– how about it? What if you wanted to start reading it because you secretly wanted to but were afraid of trying, or one day realized that you did?
Whatever the circumstance, reader, circumstance was what brought you to poetry. Reading poetry is a product of: love, an event, an era, a joke, anything.
Maybe it was frustration that brought you here. First, you heard about poetry, how a lot of people seem to be excited about it and have been for a long time, so you wanted to give it a try. Read a couple of reviews, rummaged through library shelves. Took a book out, flipped through pages. Got tangled in something like a sestina and did what anyone who has first encountered a sestina would and should do: Close the book and set it aside.
Poetry has got to be one of the rare exceptions in literature when it comes to gathering acclaim on first impression. No one is born hating it.
Babies flutter their eyes to sleep when their parents croon a lullaby. Children dance in circles to nursery rhymes and folklore. Older kids know all too well that stepping on a sidewalk crack could break their mother’s back. Teens filter the world through tattered notebooks, and if they’re spicy, a shared Google Doc. Adults can fade into the ambivalent.
Ambivalence isn’t coincidental. Not enough poetry is in the education curriculum in grade school, and when it is, for many exposed to the study of the genre, syllabi were and still are mainly white and uninspired. Through a parochial version of close reading, there’s a dependence on measuring interpretation by rubric. Technique takes on as the only correct lens in which to deconstruct a poem’s meaning. (Sestinas, apparently, are a poem with six stanzas with six lines each, and a three-line envoy. A “complex French verse form,” starts the Poetry Foundation in its glossary definition.) True, poetry is a game of technique–– it’s what makes the genre rather playful–– but technique gives the illusion to readers that understanding poetry demands work rather than experiencing and engaging with it. Reading poetry suddenly becomes a work and no-play conundrum despite the act itself having been borne from pleasure; a rubric branded into the mind, hovering at each attempt you make at getting through a line, a stanza, a full break.
On the first of March, poet Chen Chen tweets:
“i’m struck by how many readers get trained to read poetry as a decoding process or a
riddle-solving. rather than ‘just’ enjoying language and imagining what’s happening on
the page. a deer can be a symbol of something ‘profound.’ or it can be a deer. the sound
When was the first time you lastloved reading poetry?
Over the years the zeitgeist warmed up to wanting poetry. This could be due to the arrival of Instapoetry, or through social media in general being a freeway for publications and the public to transport pieces new and old. This want could also be a symptom of our times, and the need to process what’s going on in a communal way.
The caveat is that a shift in cultural attitude doesn’t always recall an understanding of the necessity for poetry. But why argue for poetry when revelling is an option? Poet Adam Sol forgoes any defending in his book, How A Poem Moves (based on his blog of the same name). Poetry just is, so here is how it does, is what he proposes instead. Through 35 poems, Sol writes an essay for each while disconnecting stanzas and lines, one by one, showing the mechanics behind writing poetry. By picking poems apart, Sol succeeds in guiding readers on how to approach the genre and its various forms by giving them a window through his own reading processes. Sol notes how Ross Gay’s “Ode to Drinking Water from My Hands,” invites the reader to participate in praise of memories of their own; how Liz Howard bends the villanelle to embrace both internal conflict and potential in “A Wake”. There are plenty of possibilities to enter and exit a poem, and readers can use the book as a refining tool when reading, making it an opportunity to further analyze each work by way of a different perspective.
Another source for enjoying poetry is Poetry Rx, a column in The Paris Review website where “readers write in with a specific emotion” to resident poets, Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz. Not officially an advice column but one that matches the mood and subject with a poem, Poetry Rx is a wonderful channel to learn poetry through feeling, because scholarship isn’t the emphasis here, the experiential is. The curated list made of works from emerging and established writers, along with the care and insight from the resident poets supports the reader in understanding both their situation and the recommended poem. Situation and poem make a revelation. Recently, Schwartz recommended Seamus Heaney’s “Postscript” to a letter-writer in shock over her father’s double life. Even when taken out of context Schwartz’s reflection on the poem, as well as how to cope with being jarred, fortuitously works as a method when trying to approach a poem: “Just be present. Practice noticing: how the wind feels, how the light looks. Just be here now, wholly, with your blown-open heart. Beauty will reenter. You will find yourself there.”
When was the last time you let a sestina be without judgement?
Enjoying poetry is relinquishing silos for a better freedom. It’s witnessing holiness as shared, one that cannot guarantee an eternal union to anything. It’s a thrill to go on a ride with a speaker attempting to describe a moment, circumstance, impression, or feeling, let nothing make sense. Let the image in. See what the thrill-ride has to offer. Poems change after the first read.
Not until I chose the ride did I realize that it was possible to take plenty of twists and turns and risks by being honest. The worst-case scenario of reading a sestina is getting through it. But stumbling off-track isn’t embarrassing, it’s action. One of my favourite film tropes is when a red convertible sports car goes full speed in the desert and swerves off the road, scraping the aridisol. The way the smoke rumbles out of the engine; the choke of adrenaline from the clouded wake. Car and person, together and spotless. So fresh it never bores me.
Amanda Ghazale Aziz has written for PRISM International, Hazlitt, This Magazine, and elsewhere. She was a 2018 short fiction fellow at the Banff Centre’s Emerging Writers retreat. She lives in Tkaronto (Toronto).