Don’t Like Poetry? Start Here

How often have you read a poem and thought, “I don’t get it”? I can relate. How about this one: “I don’t get it; but I wish I could”? That was me, too. And it kept me away from poetry. Then I discovered Robert Pinsky’s little book The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide. Pinsky helped me get it, and made me a believer in poetry.

There are several reasons why I wanted a deeper appreciation of the poetry I didn’t understand.

  1. Poetry is everywhere. If you’re a reader and paying attention at all, you come across poetry with surprising frequency. These reading speed bumps made me feel deficient somehow.
  2. The capacity others have to appreciate reading and writing poetry challenges me. With so many who read and write poetry with genuine understanding and appreciation, I felt I must be missing something. And I felt that what I was missing was something worth getting. I felt deficient as a person, like the problem was not with poetry, but with me.
  3. The abstract appeal of poetry is powerful, even for someone who doesn’t get it. This suggests that poetry is a mode of expression that exhibits the human condition in illuminating detail.
  4. I firmly believe that literature, in every mode, puts us in touch with truths that are inaccessible any other way, or that are not as accessible any other way. Humans are naturally truth-interested. Much of this interest is aimed at truths with practical significance. But our interest also targets truths that may surprise us and enrich our lives when they are discovered. So we should explore the nooks and crannies where truths may be found, and that includes poetry.

With these as prompts, I decided to do something about my deficiency. The timing of this decision coincided with my discovery of a brilliant little book, Pinsky’s The Sounds of Poetry. This is the place to start if you don’t get it, but think you might be missing something.

It was easy to see that Pinsky had the credentials. He was named the United States Poet Laureate in 1997. And I found that I had a natural affinity for much of the poetry he had written. His book is aimed at readers, and true novices, at that. I wondered a little whether this consummate professional could relate effectively to someone as clueless as I was. I dove into the book with cautious optimism. Pinsky did not let me down.

This is indeed a brief guide at only 144 pages. Pinsky teaches how to hear poetry, by covering all the important aspects of a poem. He illustrates each point convincingly with commentary on specific poems.

I’m puzzled by the lackluster review of this book by Library Journal. The reviewer seems to have had completely inappropriate expectations in saying “there is little to be gleaned from it.” That obviously depends on one’s perspective. And from my utterly naive perspective, The Sounds of Poetry was just what I needed. What I gleaned led me into a welcome capacity for greater enjoyment of poetry.

So I recommend this little guide to anyone who feels the force of the incentives I listed above.

About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

2 Responses to Don’t Like Poetry? Start Here

  1. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Billy,

    Thanks for the note. Can you share some of your ideas here? Where will your column appear? Do you write or teach poetry (or both)?



  2. Billy Dean says:

    I’m writing a column titled “Learn to Like Poetry’ for a local magazine, and enjoyed your comments. Thanks…


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