Why I (usually) hate poetry

A slightly contradictory discussion of my problems with poetry


I know that some of you who read my posts write poetry, and wondered what you would think about today’s topic. But I thought to myself, if we were mates and sitting around a table with a cup of coffee, I’d probably feel free to tell you what I thought, and you might vigorously disagree with me, but chances are neither of us would be offended. So I’m taking that chance today.

You’d think that I would like poetry. And obviously I do like some poetry, otherwise I wouldn’t have written posts on Desiderata a couple of times already. I’m a touchy feely kind of guy, love the arts and things of beauty. So surely I would warm to soul searching, delicately constructed and crafted expressions. Well, yes and no.

My problem is that much of the poetry I come across is so subtle that I can’t work it out. Or it would take me way too much time reflecting on it before I might work out what it was trying to say. And I’m no stranger to subtlety, so it’s not that I lack the insight (or maybe I do, in ways that I don’t know).

I get it that sometimes things expressed subtly or metaphorically are richer than just coming out and saying it. There’s a sense of something captured so beautifully (I wish I could think of some examples right now – maybe some Shakespeare?) that when you read it you just think “wow”. It’s a picture or an emotion or a moment perfectly communicated.

But so often when I read a poem the meaning of it is almost impossible to fathom. I can imagine (tell me if I’m wrong) the author thinking that there is a precious truth contained in his or her poem that only a select few can grasp, and that only those who are in tune with the author will get it. If I thought I could work it out without too much trouble, I probably would have a crack. But I read it, think to myself, “I have no idea. I don’t have time for this” and move on.

And here’s where I might sound like I’m a bit hard to please, because I also don’t like poetry that is the opposite – clear and straightforward (“there’s no pleasing this guy” I hear you mutter). So I suppose a poem that teases my thinking a little without demanding that I pore over it to try and glean some kind of clue, well, that’s probably the kind of poem I like.

Of course, there are also my personal preferences. Some poems do it for me, some don’t, but I’m not going to elaborate on that because it’s of no value to this discussion and purely subjective.

But now I must admit to a contradiction. If the words are put to music I don’t mind so much! I love Leonard Cohen, some of Tom Waits, a lot of Yes, and no doubt lots of other bands with elusive lyrics. When their opaque phrases are added to music that I like, the fact that I can’t understand them doesn’t bother me (or not so much).

And the interesting thing is, I do try then to work what the words mean (and almost always fail). But I have fun trying! And I suppose the music adds its own meaning, so even if I don’t understand the words, if the music is upbeat I tend to feel the words are somehow upbeat, or vice versa.

Take a song by Tom, Waits for example – Time, Time, Time. A lovely melancholy feel to the song as he half sings, half says the following (this is only one of the verses – the other verses are just as good):

And they all pretend they’re orphans, and their memory’s like a train

You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away

And the things you can’t remember tell the things you can’t forget

History puts a saint in every dream

Well she said she’d stick around until the bandages came off

But these mamas boys just don’t know when to quit

And Matilda asks the sailor are those dreams or are those prayers?

So just close your eyes son, this won’t hurt a bit

What does that all mean? I don’t have a clue! Well, I have some ideas, but they’re half formed and I can’t quite get them past that stage. But it sounds deep, it sounds a bit sad, and when combined with the music I find it moves me deeply. (By the way, if anyone wants to take a crack at what it means, go for it).

So, where does that leave me? I suppose if I persevered like I do with songs (because the music keeps me interested) maybe I would get the poetry that I came across, or maybe I don’t need to understand the poem, just get some kind of emotional feeling from it. Perhaps you, my poetry friends, can set me straight.

Nevertheless, I just can’t see myself taking the time to decipher them. A bit more context, some slightly clearer indication of where the author is going with this would help (though I suppose that would defeat their purpose, and take the edge off their subtlety). Maybe a title of the poem that sheds some light on what it’s all about?

So there you have it. I see the value of poetry, but if it takes me too long to try and get some meaning out of it, I move on. What about you?

Author: Terry Lewis

I'm a guy in his 50's who thought it might be fun to write about day to day issues - the stuff that life is made of. It's helped me think and develop some deeper perspectives. I enjoyed it so much I thought I might start posting it in a blog, and here we are! I intend to mix it up as much as I can. I am a thinking kind of guy so the majority of my posts will probably have some kernel of truth or (hopefully) wisdom nestled in there somewhere. But I also hope to have some light hearted posts as well. Too much thinking can make life pretty dull! Anyway, hope you like it.

2 thoughts on “Why I (usually) hate poetry”

  1. The point of poetry is really for you to impose a value on it. So, I think that your reflection has done that. I am very straightforward, laser like, in fact when I’m saying something. But I am also an abstract artist and I like to communicate with people beyond the literal fact. So, if I write words in a poem, it’s to evoke a feeling. Most people feel “correctly” what I am trying to say even if the words don’t make literal sense. Your appreciation for poetry is strong so trust that your emotions will lead you to the right interpretation.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I get it that our own response to the poem is what matters, and I also appreciate your idea that an emotive response is all that is ultimately required. Whilst I really enjoy that, in an ideal world I want to understand what the author is trying to say. I suppose I’m looking for a kindred spirit in a way, even if I ultimately take from the poem what it means to me. Thanks again for your input.

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