I am part of an informal network where people meet over coffee to discuss their jobs. The idea behind the network is to enable individuals from diverse professions/disciplines to learn from one another in an unpressured environment. These informal chats also furnish people with the chance to discuss non work related matters, for example hobbies. During a recent meeting (having exhausted work related issues), the conversation turned to outside interests. I mentioned that I write poetry. At this juncture there emanated from my companion what I can only describe as a distinct titter. “So you don’t like poetry?” I said. “I don’t have much time for reading”, replied my newly made acquaintance.
Shortly after the above exchange, we shook hands and went our separate ways.
Looking back on the incident, I am torn between amusement at the fact that the writing of poetry elicited mirth from a grown person, and sadness at the seeming inability of my acquaintance to engage (or at least attempt to engage) with something other than their own narrow profession (that of finance).
There are, of course things with which I find it difficult to engage. For instance I am not a lover of opera. I would not, however dream of dismissing (or laughing at) this art form as to do so would indicate boorishness on my part. If a friend where to invite me to the opera I would go along as I am open minded and prepared to develop my tastes. Where I to attend an operatic performance and not find it to my liking I certainly would not titter but, as is so often said it takes all sorts to make a world.
My encounter with this individual reignited within me a curiosity regarding why some people dismiss poetry out of hand. One possible reason explaining the disinclination of people to engage with poetry is that the art form is often associated in the public’s mind with complex imagery and metaphor. For instance to fully grasp Eliot’s “The Wasteland” demands copious reading of notes with their references to mythology, history etc. I, personally find the effort entailed in following up on often obscure references enhances my understanding of Eliot’s work. I do, however understand that others feel differently.
While much poetry is complex, a good deal is not. For instance Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman” is a wonderful balad describing the doomed love affair between a highwayman and an inkeeper’s daughter. No arcane knowledge is required to enjoy the poem. None the less the idea that poetry “is not for me” persists in the minds of many.
Does the reluctance of some to engage with poetry stem from a fear of deep emotion. The best poetry frequently tackles issues with which many are disinclined to engage. To take a concrete example, in “Aubade” Larkin ponders on death and, in particular our fear of dying. It is often said that in Victorian England sex was the taboo subject. Perhaps in today’s consumerist society the great taboo is death, hence the reluctance of many to engage with poems (and other art forms) which tackle this topic. It is easier to flick between TV soap operas than it is to immerse oneself in the profundities of poetry.
However not all poetry is of a serious nature. “The Owl and the Pussycat” by Edward Lear and the many limericks, written by countless individuals prove that verse need not be serious.
In conclusion, poetry is for everyone so why are significant numbers of people not attracted to this art form? As stated above, I believe that part of the answer to this question lies in the mistaken belief that poetry is by its nature intrinsically difficult. While some poetry is difficult to interpret, by no means all poetry falls into this category. Consequently any attempt to tackle the misconception that the art form is difficult needs to ensure that young people (and others) are introduced to as broader range of poetry as is possible (both “difficult” and not “difficult”).
As regards the saturated consumerist society in which we live, one in which beautiful women are used to sell all manner of products, this is a more difficult issue. As a liberal (with a small l), I have no desire to tell others how they should spend their leisure time. One man’s meat is another man’s poison and it is not for me to force a dish of my choosing on others. I can only hope that through a rounded education people will come to appreciate poetry at a young age and that this love will remain with them throughout their lives.