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Why Read Poetry?

Poetry sections in major bookshops are shrinking – and is anything really being lost? Jenny Scoones gives us a personal defence.

It’s easy to be intimidated by poetry. Often it withholds as much as it gives, leaves obscure as much as it reveals. And there is so much of it. So many different kinds. Poetry. Not one definable thing, but rather a way of seeing things. None of which has to be poetry proper. An evening can be poetic. A person. A face and the secrets it holds. A face, much like a poem in what it withholds and what it gives up, when it is vulnerable and when defensive. Difficult, even. – So why read poetry?   

Poetry can be read in the world around us, not just as the words on a page. Poetry is in religion. Poetry is in pop music, in lyrics and in films; the words we keep with us, day after day, because they are the words that see us through. The words, I love you. The words, I love you too. Because poetry is a love offering, and a way of reading the world. Poetry is accepting inconclusion, to know that you cannot know and have faith none the less.

But where to begin? And how? How to read a poem? And poems, the plural, one after the other, like songs on a playlist; or like lovers, one in an evening and another the next? Or the same one, night after night, because you will never know them fully. Can never know anyone fully. A Poem as a lover you return to again and again under the same twilit sky, each night hoping to come closer to them, and each dawn watching them draw ever further away. And it still being worth it. Each night, tracing their shape on your tongue. Printed there, an indelible impression, forgotten come the morning, known only in glimpses until you return, inevitably, to their arms again.

And some versions of their shape not known at all. You can never know another person entirely. Who they are when you are no longer there. Just as there will always be a reading that has escaped you, a possible version of that poem you have failed to bring to life. As with people and what we bring out in them. As with love and who it does or doesn’t make us. Because failure is essential to poetry. The acceptance of what cannot be read. Or what cannot be read today but one day will be. How meaning can come only with time. Words relevant only when you know enough to not need them anymore, or know too much and so needing them hurts. But the hurt is good, makes the other times worth-while, makes the loving and the touching purposeful and pure. Poetry as recognising that love is all there is or ever will be. Larkin wasn’t so sure, but that he wrote as much means I am.

It takes effort, beginning a book. And a book of poetry more so than fiction. Because whereas with fiction the initial displacement of landing in the terrain of another’s mind wears off once things like character, situation, and plot have been established, in a book of poems each page is a new landscape to explore. A new country with a new language to decipher, a new climate to which to adjust. This disjunct can be jarring, confusing and alienating. But whoever learnt a language in a day? Whoever packed for all weather? Each poem is a new face you let in. Let see you as much as you see it. And together you decipher your language. Sometimes it doesn’t speak back. Sometimes you can only run away. But sometimes it meets you on the borderline, between breath and page, a hand stretched out to your own, and your are taken in, embraced.

And it will always be worth that embrace. The embrace that tells you, look! Look upon this world and see! The faces, the bodies, the trees! The memories, the loss, and the longing! How to read the world. How to make each breath count. An embrace you practice each night, with a hundred lovers but the hope is always the same. A hundred lovers but it doesn’t matter when the hope is always the same. Of finding beneath their skin, any skin, the answer. Of finding in a word your God. If only for a moment, finding absolution, and clinging to it as you cling to life itself.

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