Monday, June 7, 2010

Poetry Appreciation for the Unappreciative

For years, as much as I tried, I couldn’t get into poetry. It seemed too formal and unapproachable. Then I heard Funeral Blues by W.H. Auden recited in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral. It’s hard to hear this and think of it as unapproachable. It gets under your skin. That’s power.


Funeral Blues
W.H. Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

That’s when I realized my problem –poetry is meant to be recited. Poets use words with precision. Poets understand rhythm. When it’s spoken, it takes on dimension that you’d never suspect when you see it on a page.

As soon as I got that, I realized that poetry was all around me. It was part of my every day, not some rare arty thing that existed outside. Yes, I should have realized that song lyrics were poetry, but I didn’t think of them that way until my ears were opened. Being able to sing along didn’t take away its impact.

What Sarah Said
Death Cab for Cutie

I would show the lyrics to What Sarah Said, but unlike Auden's poem, this is still under copyright, and I have to respect that. However, a simple search on the internet will take you to the lyrics. I suggest you take a look, because this song/poem is incredible.


Recently, friend Steven Reigns released a book of his poetry. (Inheritance. Lethe Press) I’m glad I went to the reading, because now as I read his poems, I hear his voice and it brings life to his words. Maybe that’s the key to appreciating poetry - approach it as living art rather than simply words on a page. And when you can, sing along, or even dance, but always let it get under your skin.


  1. As soon as I got that, I realized that poetry was all around me. It was part of my every day, not some rare arty thing that existed outside.

    Hear, hear. Your point about thinking poetry being formal and unapproachable reflects a fairly well accepted mindset in the present time.

    Poetry should be alive and vibrant, like the Auden poem you shared and those very intense lyrics.

    I love poetry that comes from the heart, that "gets under your skin," that grabs you immediately, but also begs further reflection.

    Great post.


  2. Hi Kathleen!

    When I read your Auden poem it made me run to look at the lyrics to Aimee Mann's "Satellite". I think she must have been an Auden fan.

    I've also had some difficulty getting into poetry. I find when I like it, its the best, but its hard to find the ones I like. I think writing poetry is a valuable thing for a prose writer because it forces us to think about the sound of language. For instance the beginning of Robbie Robertson's song "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down":

    "Virgil Caine is the name
    and I served on the Danville train.
    'Till Stoneman's cavalry came
    and they tore up the tracks again.
    In the winter of '65
    we were hungry just barely alive.
    By May the 10th Richmond had fell
    It's a time I remember oh so well."

    That is so perfect. You could start a story with it. It has everything. And its rock n roll!

    It has a beat and you can dance to it.


  3. Hi, Kathleen,

    I think that for too many people, "poetry" is something that you study in high school, written by dead white guys. A lot of "classic" poetry is so formal and stylized that it's not surprising people hate it.

    When I was in junior high, we had a requirement in English class called "recitation". We would have to learn a poem and then recite it to the class--and we had free reign as to what poem we chose.

    I found, and learned, some of my favorite poems back then. Like Sarah Teasdale's "Barter":

    Spend all you have for loveliness;
    Buy it and never count the cost.
    For one white singing hour of peace
    Count many a year of strife well lost,
    And for a breath of ecstasy,
    Give all you have been, or could be.

    That poem strongly shaped my world view, also.

    Thanks for sharing some wonderful verse (I really like the song lyrics. I don't know any music older than the 1980's!)


  4. Kathleen,

    Thank you. The whole point of poetry is that it should be heard and not read.

    At our local poetry readings you can feel the vibrancy of those words which just look like black print on the white page when you're reading them at home.

    To quote one of my favourite song lyrics: it's a kinda magic.



  5. Ash - So I know one thing about poetry! That's more than I thought.

    Lisabet - Wow. I've never read that one before.


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