On poetry – Part 1: Why we need to read and write poetry to fully appreciate it

I love poetry. I love reading poetry, both out loud and in my head, and I like to read all different kinds of poetry, from free verse to sonnets, to sestinas, villanelles and so on. I love to read poetry from all kinds of different poets, from different parts of the world and different times. I also love to write poetry, and likewise, I love to write within all kinds of different poetic structures, different themes, different mindsets.

It hasn’t always been this way, though. I haven’t always loved poetry. In fact, for much of my high school and university life, I loathed poetry. It infuriated me, and mostly because it made me feel stupid. I didn’t feel like I understood it. I didn’t perform very well at poetry based assignments, especially in university where I had a couple of lecturers and tutors who seemed almost pretentious with their narrow-minded views on poetry, and so I found myself put off the form of expression almost entirely.

I think for me the turn around came when I had a particularly nice lecturer who encouraged me and guided me in my poetry writing, showing me towards more complex forms and helping me to gain a grasp of them. One of the problems with poetry is that at high school it is usually read and analysed more than it is practised. Not only that, but in my high school experience, poetic form and structure was barely taught at all. Sure, iambic pentameter might have been briefly explained, but in terms of actual poetic forms, I perhaps learnt about the sonnet, the haiku, the acrostic poem, and free verse, and we very rarely got a chance to write any of our own. I think this is a major problem, not just for me, but for many of potential poets everywhere.

For a start, my understanding and appreciation of poetry only came when I learned about the processes of writing it by doing just this – writing poetry. Secondly, I appreciated it more when I discovered all the other forms of poetry, such as villanelles, sestinas, odes, pantoums, heroic couplets – the list goes on. I was never introduced to any of these forms in high school – it simply isn’t in the curriculum. But it should be, because once I realised just how big and beautiful the world of poetry was, my attitude to it changed immensely. Not only that, but learning to write it within these structures gave me a set of rules I could work with, which, rather than acting as limitations, acted as guidance to help me master the craft. I think many students the world over would actually enjoy poetry a whole lot more if they had been introduced to these forms at a much younger age, and given the opportunity to try and write their own poetry in these more traditional ways.

I am a firm believer that when it comes to poetry, reading it and writing it go hand in hand. You cannot write good poetry without reading good poetry, and you cannot fully appreciate reading good poetry until you have started to write poetry yourself. It takes time to reach this point, I’ll admit, but it is quite enlightening and enjoyable once you get there.

In Part 2 (which will appear online tomorrow morning), I’ll look at three particular books that help to understand the basics of poetry, both reading and writing it, and which also contain some of the best poetry to read and gain an appreciation for the art form.

In the meantime, what are your feelings towards poetry on the whole? Have they changed over time?