Why every writer should read poetry

Joseph Brodsky wrote much fine poetryWord count: 691 words

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

I know this will make me sound horribly old-fashioned, but I’ve been convinced that all writers — even non-fiction ones — should read poetry. Here’s why….

My relationship with poetry has been troubled. It didn’t start well. When I was a child, my father — a diehard Brit, whose favourite breakfast was smoked kippers — encouraged me to read Rudyard Kipling. (Boots, boots, boots, boots, marching up and down again and there’s no discharge in the war.) I was seven. Not only had I never encountered war, I don’t think I’d ever met a soldier. The pulsing rhythm of the verse commandeered my attention but the meaning skidded right over my head.

In high school I suffered through the usual predictable poetryWilliam Blake, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and, memorably, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I say “memorably” mainly because my grade 12 lit teacher inserted him into the curriculum when she discovered — to her horror — that no one in the class had ever studied the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. (We don’t mind, we cried, helplessly.)

In university, I finally had a brief poetic epiphany thanks to a gifted English professor. Betty Belshaw taught her students to read poems as if we were detectives attacking particularly interesting cold cases. Incredibly, at least to an 18-year-old from Catholic school, our discussion of The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock included a debate on diarrhea. (This related to the line, “Do I dare to eat a peach?”) I don’t recall talking about s/ex, but, surely, we must have. Suddenly, poetry was interesting!

From there, I went to become a fan of Dylan Thomas, William Carlos Williams and Gwendolyn MacEwen and even wrote some poetry of my own. By the time I was 25, however, my interest had trickled away.

Then, a few weeks ago, a friend asked me if I’d ever read Joseph Brodsky’s essay on the value of poetry. “I read it in 1998,” she said, “but I’ve been reading poetry ever since, so it made quite an impression.”

I vaguely knew that Brodsky (pictured here) was a Russian emigree poet (1940-1996) but didn’t know he’d won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1987 and was US poet laureate in 1991. Of course I’d never read any of his work before. Quickly, I placed a library hold on a book of his essays, On Grief and Reason. The essay on poetry, “How to Read a Book,” stunned me.

It is sublime.

Here, to me, is the most convincing part of his argument:

“The way to develop good taste in literature is to read poetry,” he wrote. “[It] is not only the most concise, the most condensed way of conveying the human experience; it also offers the highest possible standards for any linguistic operation — especially one on paper.

“The more one reads poetry, the less tolerant one becomes of any sort of verbosity, be that in political or philosophical discourse, be that in history, social studies or the art of fiction. Good style in prose is always hostage to the precision, speed and laconic intensity of poetic diction. A child of epitaph and epigram, conceived indeed as a shortcut to any conceivable subject matter, poetry to prose is a great disciplinarian.

“It teaches the latter not only the value of each word but also the mercurial mental patterns of the species, alternatives to linear composition, the knack of omitting the self-evident, emphasis on detail, the technique of anticlimax.”

Brodsky also provides a list of recommendations, tailored to the readers’ mother tongue. For English speakers he suggests: Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop.

So, 30 years after my last interest in poetry, I am starting to read it again. I’m beginning with the poems in the New Yorker and I think, over my holidays, I will bring a book or two of poetry along to the beach with me.

I’m also bringing Brodsky’s book of essays. That man can write!

Here is an online link to his essay, How to Read a Book. Please don’t read it online. Instead, print it out. It’s worth your unfettered attention.

Posted August 14th, 2012 in Power Writing

  • Jean Gogolin

    Damn! Is that what “Dare I eat a peach?” is all about? Who knew?

    One of your best posts ever, Daphne, and I wholeheartedly agree. This is one of the reasons I read NPR’s “The Writer’s Almanac” every day. I’ve just finished Ellen Gilchrist’s book on writing and she too has a lot to say about poetry. I haven’t read Brodsky but I will now.

    Many thanks for this.

    • Daphne Gray-Grant

      You’re so welcome, Jean. Sorry to take so long to reply but I was off on holiday and, on the latter part of the trip, the little island we were visiting had no Wifi!! Talk about feeling cut off!

  • Jean Gogolin

    Sorry — I meant “Do I dare to eat a peach?” Brain faster than typing fingers.

  • Lori Lipsky

    I just purchased Brodsky’s book of essays at your suggestion. I can’t wait to hold it in my hand and read the essay on poetry. Slowly. Thank you for the recommendation.

    • Daphne Gray-Grant

      I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, Lori!

  • Joyce Gram

    I too discovered poetry fairly recently, and have written quite a bit. It focuses the mind like nothing else. I recommend a daily dose; only takes a minute: http://poems.com/ and http://www.versedaily.org/

    • Daphne Gray-Grant

      I agree with your comment that poetry helps focus the mind! Well put.

  • Jim hayward

    Just read the piece and had similar poor experiences with poetry in school. My mother wrote poetry but never passed on her love of it.
    I read “How to read a book” and will start looking at some peotry.
    I have two old books of poems my father, a forester, read on his solitary nights in the woods; Robert Service and Browning. I must dig them out.
    Got me thinking, thanks.

    • Daphne Gray-Grant

      I suggest you try some Dylan Thomas, Jim. I particularly like The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower.