Review of Don't Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems by Stephanie Burt
Don't Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems
by Stephanie Burt
As previously discussed in my review of The Hatred of Poetry, I struggle with reading poetry. So I was tantalized by the title of this book. The previous book was a gift from a fellow teacher friend whose feelings about poetry are a bit less ambivalent than mine. When I learned about Don’t Read Poetry, I thought it would be a good reciprocal gift to her. Stephanie Burt’s thesis is basically that we should avoid seeing poems as part of a monolithic form we call “poetry,” because it’s reductive and far too slippery a concept to really grasp. Rather, she wants us to read poems themselves, and she takes us on a tour of various lenses for reading and understanding a poem. Her point is basically that we seldom mean that we hate all poems when we talk about hating poetry—there are some poems that mean a lot to us, even we don’t read poetry in general. And I definitely agree with that.
The six lenses, corresponding to the six chapters of the book, are feelings, characters, forms, difficulty, wisdom, and community. Burt isn’t saying that every poem falls into one of these categories. Instead she suggests that we can use apply these lenses as and when we want to, although certain poems lend themselves better to different lenses. The surface meaning of each approach is fairly obvious, and I won’t provide a more detailed summary. What’s most valuable about this way of laying it out is that Burt can give us examples of specific poems and really isolate what about that poem is worth paying attention to. Indeed, the sheer number of poets and poems mentioned or featured in Don’t Read Poetry is at times overwhelming!
Sometimes I wonder if my mild aphantasia contributes to my ambivalence about poetry. I have a lot of trouble visualizing when I read. I can’t picture characters or places in my head; I don’t see action as a cinematic experience like others apparently do. I just read the words and absorb the information as a narrative. Perhaps, then, this explains why poems—which are often vehicles for complex imagery—don’t often work for me. I can recognize and understand the figurative language, but it doesn’t always make that connection in my mind required to really tap into those feelings or that subtext.
That being said, one of my personal realizations from reading this book is that there’s definitely more to my reticence than that. Burt discusses, for example, how different forms have come in and out of fashion cyclically over the years, plus new ones that get invented by innovators. And I thought about how maybe my emphasis on afferent reading is another reason I don’t feel connected to poems. Even when I’m reading a novel for entertainment, I’m reading the words so I can get to the story, which I construct in my brain. Style is usually secondary for me, and while I love it when I can luxuriate in someone’s writing, the story is always what I need first. So maybe that’s why poems often stymie me—I’m trying to look for meaning when first I should look at the poem itself as a thing, as a piece of art (some poems at least). This is probably why visual art does very little for me too….
I love that Burt consistently demonstrates why it’s so silly to define poetry in a restrictive way. Although she definitely has her own personal preferences when it comes to poems, she makes it clear that she considers pretty much anything that wants to be called a poem a poem. I appreciate this inclusiveness; it’s an attitude I wish were replicated in more English classes, which often seem to quash the spark of verse love from the souls of students in the same way that the words “Pythagorean theorem” quash the math love. Burt features some of the more familiar “canonical” poets throughout Western history. But she branches out into non-Western writers, and far more contemporary writers, and that makes this book so much more valuable.
One question I have after reading this, then, would be how do we really critique poetry? At one point Burt mentions that people who don’t like a poem probably just don’t understand it, that the poem probably “just isn’t for them.” I understand and am sympathetic to this point, to a point. Yet I also think it’s valid to ask how we critique poetry, how we criticize it seriously, how we break it down and determine if a poem that is trying to be serious is in fact facile, or vice versa. None of this is really within the scope of Don’t Read Poetry, but it seems to be related.
This book did not suddenly make me love poetry or even want to read more poems. But it definitely gave me a lot to think about. And Burt’s steady, methodical investigation into the mechanics and meaning of poems is competent and compelling, although sometimes dry a little too much for me to take in—this took me a long time to read, from my point of view. Nevertheless, I’d say I’m definitely the target audience: someone who fancies himself knowledgeable, especially in a literary sense, yet who feels like he’s missing out when it comes to understanding poems.