William Wordsworth and the reading of poetry

map Claudius_Ptolemy-_The_World The concept of reading poetry for some is like translating text from an ancient language. Often it is equated as a chore rather than its intended purpose of enjoyment. On a page poetry can appear rather distant and unfamiliar, like an antique map one intends to chart. The words are disjointed and phrases short of meaning, arranged before the reader like crudely drawn ports-of-call; and our eyes, though wanting to decipher the text are drawn to the unstructured form, its lack of punctuation and deficiency of capital letters.

Poetry conjures up those dreaded days of English classes, red-inked marked papers, and scowls of disapproval. How something so lovely can bring memories of scorn is much like a spring flower settled upon a stem of thorns.

And though it has been brushed aside with the same aversion as a child pushes away a plate of calf’s liver, it continues to be relished by some. Poetry has endured the scrutiny of time, manipulation, reconstruction, interpretation, and criticism. And while it may not be the favored literary genres by many, for those who have allowed its presence to fade away, it is well worth giving it another go. Think of reading poetry as taking a leisurely walk over a path that is laden with gold… only to be discovered if you observe with all your senses the journey set before you.

William Wordsworth 2 Today’s post invites back our esteemed thinker: William Wordsworth (1770-1850), one of England’s most respected writers of both prose and poetry. Much of his greatness is expressed through his belief that the ideal could be experienced in everyday life. He was at home with nature, which is effortlessly revealed through the intensity of these feelings expressed in his works.

For your reading pleasure I have extracted from The Prose Work of William Wordsworth a snippet regarding his principals of poetry (1798). I now give to you the illustrious, Mr. Wordsworth….

“… I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of re-action, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind, and in whatever degree, from various causes, is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will, upon the whole, be in a state of enjoyment. If Nature be thus cautious to preserve in a state of enjoyment a being so employed, the Poet ought to profit by the lesson held forth to him, and ought especially to take care, that, whatever passions he communicates to his Reader, those passions, if his Reader’s mind be sound and vigorous, should always be accompanied with an overbalance of pleasure. Now the music of harmonious metrical language, the sense of difficulty overcome, and the blind association of pleasure which has been previously received from works of rhyme or metre of the same or similar construction, an indistinct perception perpetually renewed of language closely resembling that of real life, and yet, in the circumstance of metre, differing from it so widely—all these imperceptibly make up a complex feeling of delight, which is of the most important use in tempering the painful feeling always found intermingled with powerful descriptions of the deeper passions. This effect is always produced in pathetic and impassioned poetry; while, in lighter compositions, the ease and gracefulness with which the Poet manages his numbers are themselves confessedly a principal source of the gratification of the Reader. All that it is necessary to say, however, upon this subject, may be effected by affirming, what few persons will deny, that, of two descriptions, either of passions, manners, or characters, each of them equally well executed, the one in prose and the other in verse, the verse will be read a hundred times where the prose is read once…”

First image: (1482 ) Claudius Ptolemy, cartographer, Johannes Schnitzer, engraver

9 thoughts on “William Wordsworth and the reading of poetry

  1. I don’t believe that poetry is like that naturally for humans. I believe they naturally love poetry, but that our culture beats it out of us while we are still children.

    • I agree with Luanne. Children love poetry. And poetry is very, very popular–in the form of rap or hip-hop, both of which partake a great deal of the nature of poetry.

      Many factors conspire to make children learn to hate poetry. First, we teach poetry that is too difficult for students at the time. We teach the classics at too early an age. I’d recommend that we continue to teach them interesting, fun stuff. Second, we have come to value too much poetry that is extremely difficult. I have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English and did two years of coursework toward the Ph.D. I have taught writing and literature. I have edited around seventy scholarly books for university presses. I have published quite a few poems. Even with my background, much modern poetry still puzzles or even thwarts me. It is hard to ask readers to pick up, say, Jorie Graham and expect actually to enjoy her. (I used to like reading her work, but I realized that I had only the vaguest glimmering of what she had to say.)

      So those are some of my thoughts on the subject. I think that we should do what we can to reignite children’s love of poetry. Love for literature can expand lives.

      • Son of Sharecroppers, are you me? So much of what you wrote rings a bell for me. I actually wrote about Jorie Graham’s poetry for one chapter of my dissertation. Now I look at her poetry and think, huh? It’s an acquired taste, but one that takes a lot of work, so no, one can’t just pick it up and enjoy it. But there is plenty of phenomenal poetry that people can pick up and read. It’s a matter of choosing Frost over Eliot or Stevens, say. I love the books of Kenneth Koch which are about his work with children and poetry. Have you read them? And he does use more difficult poems with children, but goes about the presentation in ways that open their world, rather than making them haters of sound and verbal image.

      • Exactly, that is why it is so unfortunate that so many people have not had the same experiences. Here’s to poetry and all its loveliness!! As always, your insight is greatly received!

      • Hi, Luanne,

        I have read a trifle of Koch, but am not familiar with those works. I have his “Collected Long Poems” on the shelf–unread, unfortunately. I purchased it when I was planning to write a long narrative poem: a foolish concept–but I have also written a full-length play in blank verse, so there you go.

        You are absolutely correct that part of the problem is the way people teach poetry as well as the poetry they teach. We focus too much on interpretation of poems rather than the enjoyment and other uses of poems. I believe that the best poems do not merely mean, but do. They are tools that we can use in navigating the world.

        Were I ever to teach literature again, I would go about it in a much different way . . .



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