Brain Pickings

How to Enjoy Poetry

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“Poetry makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world.”

“True poetic practice implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity,” Edward Hirsch advised in his directive on how to read a poem. But how, exactly, does one cultivate such “true poetic practice”? In an essay plainly, promisingly titled “How to Enjoy Poetry,” found in the 1985 anthology How to Use the Power of the Printed Word (public library) — the same treasure trove that gave us Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 timeless rules of writing, and Bill Cosby’s 3 proven strategies for reading faster — the poet and novelist James Dickey, winner of the National Book Award for his poetry collection Buckdancer’s Choice, offers some timeless and breathtakingly articulated advice:

Dickey begins at the beginning:

What is poetry? And why has it been around so long? … When you really feel it, a new part of you happens, or an old part is renewed, with surprise and delight at being what it is.

Exploring your connection with other imaginations and the mystical quality of creativity, Dickey writes:

The first thing to understand about poetry is that it comes to you from outside you, in books or in words, but that for it to live, something from within you must come to it and meet it and complete it. Your response with your own mind and body and memory and emotions gives a poem its ability to work its magic; if you give to it, it will give to you, and give plenty.

Dickey reverses E. B. White’s famous statement that the writer should seek to lift the reader up, placing an equal responsibility on the reader in turn:

When you read, don’t let the poet write down to you; read up to him. Reach for him from your gut out, and the heart and muscles will come into it, too.

“The poet is always our contemporary,” Virginia Woolf memorably remarked in her timeless meditation on how to read a book, and Dickey reminds us of this eternal, perpetually self-renovating quality of poetry with a beautiful metaphor, revealing the heart of what makes poetry at once so profoundly personal and so boundlessly connective:

The sun is new every day, the ancient philosopher Heraclitus said. The sun of poetry is new every day, too, because it is seen in different ways by different people who have lived under it, lived with it, responded to it. Their lives are different from yours, but by means of the special spell that poetry brings to the fact of the sun — everybody’s sun; yours, too — you can come into possession of many suns: as many as men and women have ever been able to imagine. Poetry makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world.

On where to start, Dickey advises:

The beginning of your true encounter with poetry should be simple. It should bypass all classrooms, all textbooks, courses, examinations and libraries and go straight to the things that make your own existence exist: to your body and nerves and blood and muscles. Find you own way — a secret way that just maybe you don’t know yet — to open yourself as wide as you can and as deep as you can to the moment, the now of your own existence and the endless mystery of it, and perhaps at the same time to one other thing that is not you, but is out there: a handful of gravel is a good place to start. So is an ice cube — what more mysterious and beautiful interior of something has there ever been?

He offers a starting point equal parts practical and poetic:

As for me, I like the sun, the source of all living things, and on certain days very good-feeling, too. ‘Start with the sun,’ D. H. Lawrence said, ‘and everything will slowly, slowly happen.’ Good advice. And a lot will happen.

What is more fascinating than a rock, if you really feel it and look at it, or more interesting than a leaf?

Horses, I mean; butterflies, whales;
Mosses, and stars; and gravelly
Rivers, and fruit.
Oceans, I mean; black valleys; corn;
Brambles, and cliffs; rock, dirt, dust, ice …

Go back and read this list — it is quite a list, Mark Van Doren’s list! — item by item. Slowly. Let each of these things call up an image out of your own life.

Think and feel. What moss do you see? Which horse? What field of corn? What brambles are your brambles? Which river is most yours?

Though, as Coleridge famously noted, “the mere addition of meter does not in itself entitle a work to the name of poem,” Dickey defends the enchantment of rhythm, with a conviction in its embodied power that parallels Lilli Lehmann’s 1903 manifesto for singing. Dickey writes:

Part of the spell of poetry is the rhythm of language, used by poets who understand how powerful a factor rhythm can be, how compelling and unforgettable. Almost anything put into rhyme is more memorable than the same thing in prose. Why this is, no one knows completely, though the answer is surely rooted far down in the biology by means of which we exist; in the circulation of the blood that goes forth from the heart and comes back, and in the repetition of breathing.

Ultimately, Dickey champions the enlivening potency of the learn-by-doing approach:

The more your encounter with poetry deepens, the more your experience of your own life will deepen, and you will begin to see things by means of words, and words by means of things.

You will come to understand the world as it interacts with words, as it can be re-created by words, by rhythms and by images.

You’ll understand that this condition is one charged with vital possibilities. You will pick up meaning more quickly — and you will create meaning, too, for yourself and others.

Connections between things will exist for you in ways that they never did before. They will shine with unexpectedness, wide-openness, and you will go toward them, on your own path. ‘Then,’ as Dante says, ‘will your feet be filled with good desire.’ You will know this is happening the first time you say, of something you never would have noticed before, ‘Well, would you look at that! Who’d ‘a thunk it?’ (Pause, full of new light.)

I thunk it!’

Complement Dickey’s essay with this exquisite, rare 1936 BBC radio recording of W. B. Yeats on modern poetry and treat yourself to How to Use the Power of the Printed Word, which brings together a fantastic selection of such similarly spirited gems.

Photograph via

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