Suggests ways that poetry readers and writers can be more effective
|There are four common myths about poetry that I'd like to address. Two have to do with the writing of poetry, one involves the reading of poetry, and the last affects both sides.
The first myth is that the purpose of poetry is to express the poet's feelings. This false idea explains why so much poetry strikes the reader as vague. Intellectually, the reader might understand how the poet may have felt at one time, but the reader can't respond very well because emotion requires motivation. When the poet hasn't provided that motivation, the reader is left behind, and the poem isn't memorable.
The truth is that poetry ought to make the reader feel. Poets accomplish this best when they use imagery and figures of speech to create vivid pictures for the reader. Those of us who remember the Vietnam Era probably have two newspaper photographs stuck in our heads. One is of Vietnamese children, including a terror-stricken little girl, running naked from the war in her village. Another showed an execution on the street, just as the bullet enters the victim's head.
Such images are evocative. You can't see them without responding emotionally. I can tell you how I felt when I saw them, but that won't make you feel a thing. But let me show you the photographs or verbally create the right imagery, and you will feel.
Think of the poem you are writing as a photograph that you are creating. You want the picture itself to affect the reader, instead of saying how you feel about a picture (i.e. your experience) that the reader cannot see. What prompted the poem in you is inaccessible to the reader. The reader has only the poem, not the poet's experience.
Read this to see if the imagery is evocative.
A second myth is that free verse has no rules. That's why some on Writing.com mistakenly refer to free verse as "free-style poetry." The mistaken notion is that in free verse there are no rules, and I can do what I want and call it poetry. That's a rather narcissistic view of the writer's task. It does not take the reader into account at all.
Think of free verse as "open form" and traditional verse as "closed form." When you use a closed form-- like the sonnet or haiku or villanelle-- you are following rules that others have invented. When you write in open form (free verse), you must create a new form.
Read the last sentence again, and you will see that free verse has rules! That's right, you create a form and then consistently follow the form that you created. In other words, you are following rules that you have invented for the poem. Without such unique form, there is no difference between prose and poetry.
Another myth is "a poem means what you want it to mean." This applies, of course, to reading--rather than writing-- poetry. Somehow this bit of illogic has become pervasive. What else would anyone say that about? A cake tastes like you want it to taste? My toaster is whatever I want it to be?
The truth is that words have meaning. Effective diction, correct use of punctuation, line arrangement, and versification all create meaning. But if "a poem means what you want it to mean," then all the world would need is one poem!
The poet creates the meaning of a poem by careful choices and by revising what you have first written several times. You owe it to the reader to be clear. There may be times for deliberate ambiguity, but even then such double meanings both contribute to the overall meaning of the poem and are intended by the poet.
But the reader owes something to the poem, as well. The reader must be intellectually engaged and not just a spectator. That means looking up words that you don't know, identifying figures of speech, and recognizing allusions.
Finally, both poets and readers need to put this myth to rest: Poetry is biographical!
Certainly much poetry is prompted by a poet's experience and observation. But the poet must translate that experience into imagery for the reader. So if a poet changes a detail or six about the experience, it's because the poet understands that a poem is not an objective record of events about the poet.
And a poet is also free to imagine the imagery necessary to evoke response. There is no need for poets to experience an event to write about it if the poet can imagine well enough and write well enough to affect the reader.
And readers need to understand that the "I" in a poem is not necessarily the poet. It is best to think of the voice that speaks the poem as a persona-- a creation of the poet, like all else in the poem. It may be the poet, it may be the poet to some extent, it may not be the poet at all. It doesn't matter. The poem is true if it speaks a truth about life truly to the heart, not because it gives the reader some juicy tidbit about the poet.
In fact, poetry-- good poetry worth reading-- makes the truth a little more disturbing. It makes us sit up and take notice, it allows truth to resonate and us to ruminate on that truth.
Poetry is not biography. It is instead a wonderful medium that makes the reader feel because it uses words and phrases that are thought-provoking and meaningful. It is a transaction between poet and reader, in which both contribute intellectually so that the world--not the life of the poet-- may be better understood and so that truth might speak in ways that move us.