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Is poetry really worth reading?



Poetry, the oldest literary genre, has been created since 2000 B.C. when the Sumerians produced oral poetic works, like "Epic of Gilgamesh" and the ancient Greeks and Romans produced great epic poetry such as Homer’s "Iliad" and "Odyssey" and Hesiod’s "Works and Days." during 1200 B.C. to A.D. 455, while fiction was invented in the 12th century in England. Although it is much older than fiction, why does poetry get less readership than fiction? According to National Endowment for the Arts (2018), there were 126.5 million (41.8%) of American adults who read novels or short stories in 2017, but only 27.9 million (11.7%) read poetry at the same year. In 2008, 47% of American adults read novels or short stories, but only 8.3% read poetry. Data concerning fiction vs poetry readership in other countries is not available. But it seems that the preference for reading fiction than poetry also occurs in other countries.

From the readers' perspective, why do people prefer fiction to poetry? Various discussions have revealed various reasons why many people do not favor poetry reading. I am not a poet. I'm just a reader who loves some (only some) types of poems. I this article, I’d like to discuss six most common arguments used as the reasons shying people away from poetry and briefly evaluate their underlying rationale: (1) Poetry is boring, (2) Poetry is difficult, (3) Poetry is frustrating, (4) Poetry is too disconnected from reality, (5) Poetry is too rarified, and (6) Poetry is too slow.

Poetry is boring. To a higher extent, someone who states poetry is boring might have not tried to read a proper number of poems from which he can choose the ones that attract his interest. Poetry is about life. It’s topics concern with all life experiences—actual or imaginary, beautiful or ugly, practical or philosophical, noble or shameful. If one is interested in sports, many poems about sports are available. If he is interested in politics or love, numerous poems to these topics are easy to find. Best Poem Encyclopedia, for instance, provides thousands of poems of hundreds of topics. In terms of forms, poems are also varied. Some poems are narrative, others are descriptive, and some others are lyrical. In terms of types, poetry can be written as an elegy, ode, ballad, or epic.

Some people may argue that they prefer something more active and interactive, and poetry does not facilitate it. This argument is also based on a misunderstanding. Like other readings, poetry reading is not a passive activity. It is an interaction among the poet, the text, and the reader. In a proper poetry reading, the reader empathizes with the character, he feels as if he is involved in the character's situation or feeling. To make your reading more interactive, why don't you share what you read with one or more friends who also read the same poems? Besides, poetry reading can also be very interactive when it is read aloud before an audience. In short, poetry reading is not a passive activity. 

Poetry is difficult, it takes time to understand. It’s undeniable that some (not all) poems are difficult and necessitates repeated reading to understand because, since a poem should be short and written in a certain structure, the poet needs to compress information in a few words and suits the linguistic elements to the structure. To achieve this, poets need to use figurative languages, carefully select the diction and distort some language patterns. Thus to get the meaning, the reader should pay close attention to every detail, including the structural elements (stanzas, rhythm, and rhyme), literary devices (images, figurative languages), the poet’s point of view, and the poem’s mood and tone. Reading a poem is different from reading a newspaper or a blog article that one can scan or skim. Reading a poem is like entering an unfamiliar house. In the first trial, you need to open the door. When the door is open, you need to survey the living room first and then the other rooms. After that, you try to look at the ceiling, wall colors, furniture, etc. Understanding poetry requires repeated reading. It may be hard at the beginning, but it gets easier after a few reads. And the more poems you read, the easier for you to understand the next works. 

Another thing to note is that no deep reading is easy. Reading a novel, a textbook, or a scientific article is also tough. And don't forget that to grow you need to deal with tougher reading. Apostle Paul says that milk is suitable for babies, but adults need solid food. Accustoming yourself to tougher reading not only develops your brain your resilience. Like a muscle, the more you exercise your brain with tougher reading, the stronger it gets. At the same time, determination to do the exercises also hone your resilience, and higher resilience empowers you to face life which is often tough. 

Poetry is frustrating, it has no definite meaning. How do you know your interpretation is what a poem means? Some poems express a single meaning. Some others have some possible interpretations (or at least, shades of meaning). An interpretation is accurate if it is supported by what the poem is saying. As far as possible, avoid putting your ideas and feelings into the poem. Examine closely what the poet has written. 

Poetry is too disconnected from reality. This statement must have been stated by those with the pragmatic view of life. Considering the benefits one can get from something before doing it is good, but not all valuable benefits are practical. As previously stated, interpreting poetry requires the reader to analyze the details by applying his understanding of the structural elements, literary devices, the poet’s point of view, and the poem’s mood and tone. In the process, he practices his critical thinking. Poetry reading also hones creativity. 

Poetry extensively uses metaphors and analogies that combine non-related notions (including abstract and more concrete concepts) in an atypical way to effectively express feelings, images, and ideas. To get the meaning of such figurative expressions readers should activate a broader set of semantic associations and this will lead to increased creativity. Poetry also enables readers to see life from a different perspective, and the ability to see something in various outlooks also hone creativity. Current studies show critical thinking and creativity are two of the top skills required in the 21st century, aren’t they?

Well, these things are related to the students' world. I'm not a student. Why should I waste time on something that has no practical application to my world? The pragmatic guys might reply. They might forget that they employ both critical thinking and creativity every day in making decisions. It is said, an individual makes around 35,000 decisions per day, including small ones--like “Should I drink coffee now?” “Should I check my WhatsApp messages?”—and bigger ones, like “Should I buy a new car? Should I find a new job?” Therefore, stating that poetry is disconnected from reality is merely wishful thinking. Poetry is essentially not a 'how-to' manual. But it hones critical thinking and creativity that help us make decisions and solve problems.

Poetry is too rarified. I prefer common, everyday experience. Poetry deals with the life of all periods. It does not only talk about early topics, like John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” but also modern life affairs. With the help of the internet, it’s now very easy to access poems written in all ages by poets from around the world. Thousands of poems written by hundreds of poets from hundreds of countries could be freely accessed in Best Poem Encyclopedia.

Poetry is too slow. I want a fast-paced process for accessing information, like YouTube videos or online news. Well, this statement is typical of Millenials. Since they were brought up together with modern ICT, they would like to have everything, especially information, processed instantly and conveniently. Consequently, they only practice light-reading by skimming and scanning. They are impatient with deep-reading. This is certainly a drawback because deep reading is needed to succeed in learning and at work. One of the effective ways to solve the problem is poetry reading because it facilitates deep reading practice.

What is more, poetry reading can help us avoid getting burned out by the fast-paced life which makes our life feels chaotic. Eddy cantor suggests, “Slow down and enjoy life. It's not only the scenery you miss by going too fast - you also miss the sense of where you are going and why.” We certainly can have slower-paced by visiting tourist resorts, staying and enjoying nature, strolling on the beach, and so on. However, since poetry reading also provides many collateral advantages, why don't we take it to slow-down our daily rushing and frenzy life for a moment?

To conclude, it is clear that the six statements frequently used to argue why someone does not read poetry are not well rationally supported. The reasons emerged from misunderstanding or misperception of the nature of poetry and how to read it properly. Thus, it is recommended to find and optimize methods for enabling our society to love reading poetry. Can you suggest sound but workable methods for it? 


Author : Parlindungan Pardede (parlin@weedutap.com)

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