Why I Read Poetry

Courtesy of John-Mark Smith

In Arabic, the word for poem شعر comes from the word “felt”. This simple fact encapsulates why I read poetry.

Back in time immemorial, the first poems were read aloud. Their regular patterns helped memorization of oral history, genealogy, and law. The performance aspect of poetry never disappeared; Robert Frost toured the country and earned a living mainly through poetry readings. In 2012, there were 7,427 poetry readings in April, National Poetry Month in the US. Some would even say poetry is meant to be read aloud only.

This poetic tradition can further be related to orators, who craft messages to be delivered aloud to an audience. Like the earliest poets, the best of political speeches live on in collective memories. It is of no coincidence that the speeches of JFK and Martin Luther King use common poetic techniques.

In 2016, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his songwriting, but not without contention – some argue where he stands without music – are his songs poetry or are his lyrics literature?You can decide for yourself where you stand on the matter. But this simple argument concerns the question of the fluidity of song and poetry – it does not take much to turn the words of 19th-century poetry into beautiful songs.

Poetry, however, is not just a slave to its distinctive rhyme. Free verse poetry defied many of the conventions of traditional poetry when a movement began to “free” poetry from puritanical form standards and instead mimic the patterns and rhythms of everyday speech. This upset poetry purists, or “formalists,” who believed that an adherence to traditional patterns of poetry was what made poetry in the first place. Poets from Walt Whitman to Billy Collins have embraced this form.

But can poetry stay only in the realm of the written art without transcending other forms? As it turns out, the line between visual arts and poetry is not a rigid one at all – e.e. cummings wrote poems whose shapes were as important as the words themselves, in this case, amplifying the sad loneliness of a single leaf falling through space:

l(a

le

af

fa

ll

s)

one

l

iness

There are as many fascinating interpretations of poetry as there are reasons why people still read it. For me, I often read poems out loud. It is a type of activity that contains a game, expresses emotion and provokes a response. For this purpose, no materials or tools are needed. That is why it is accessible to everyone. You do not have to be Caruso to sing. You do not have to be Whitman to say a poem in such a way that it can make two strangers share a moment together.

I have heard arguments as to why poetry is not intended to be spoken aloud but must be read with your inner voice only—slowly and personally. It goes without saying that this should be done with a locked door, blinds down, the security alarm turned on, and the crocodiles in the ditch around the castle are hungry enough to make sure no one will see how you do this shameful job.

Yes, reading with your internal voice helps you to get deeper into the verses and to come back many times to the place that provokes you to dream.I do not dispute this style of reading, especially when it comes to complicated and difficult-to-read poetry. But if we talk about “in the beginning,” poetry was born when the chronology was below our zero point, when there was no writing and there was no way to read it because there were no letters. Poetry was spoken or sung, and this has made its musicality, brevity, and purity of speech vital and intrinsic.

When poets read their work aloud, they can feel and experience different aspects (intonation, rhythm, inflection, pauses etc.) that internal reading would be much more difficult in revealing. They can hear their thoughts and how their breath ends in the midst of inhumanly long sentences, and they realize that this dialogue is nonphysiological, so there is no way for it to sound natural. After all, how will we hear the music of a verse if we do not say it out loud?

The school system has a great blame for killing the sense of music in poetry. Children often sound like an army of robots when reading a poem. This is where it starts, and that is the soil from which nothing grows. In some homes, poetry is read. On radio and TV, poems rarely flow. And here, reading at school is often crucial.

But I want to say something else about the poems. I have attended many meetings with poets and writers. I went there to see the authors live, but mostly to be able to experience their works in a different way. Book premieres, literary readings, contests – all occasions that require the writing to sound.

This is what I love most—to hear a poem read by its own author. Often after a hard day, I listen to such recordings. There is something beautiful about it, where the author stands behind his poem and welcomes it.

Why do I read poetry? I am afraid I do not have a definite answer to this straightforward question. I simply love the way it sounds – its unique rhythms, unbounded by the rules of the prose and the warm tingling feeling a good poem leaves behind. It is a form that manages to evoke reflection, harmony, and to express complex things in ordinary words. It is a filter for reality.

I will now leave you with one of my favorite poems (“A Cry from Childhood”) by whom I consider to be one of the best workers of language and humanity, Valeri Petrov. The poem is translated by R. Wilbur:

Why must it come just now to trouble me,

This sudden, shrill, and dreamlike cry

Of children calling “Valeri! Valeri!”

Out in the street nearby?

 

It is not for me, that distant childhood call;

Alas, it is for me no more.

They are calling now to someone else, my small

Namesake who lives next door.

 

Though such disturbances, I must admit,

Are troubling to my train of thought,

I keep my feelings to myself, for it

Would be comical, would it not,

 

If, from his high and studious retreat,

A gaunt old man leaned out to say

“I can’t come out” to the children in the street,

“I’m not allowed to play.

***

Nesrin Nazlieva is a Psychology student at Erasmus University.  She decided to follow the example of her predecessors who, back in 1460, left the Karamanid beylik and immigrated to Bulgaria.  Instead of Bulgaria, however, she chose the Netherlands.  Her short story with a not so short title ‘The Story of a Wanderer Who Traveled the World in Search of His Hat’ earned her a second place in one of the most prestigious national literary contests in 2015.  When she is not glued to a book, she spends time working out in the garden, learning Spanish, and trying very hard not to be the worst player at Ludo.

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