Averse to Verse

I write.  Not as much as I’d like, but I write.  I’ve written hundreds of pages of prose fiction stories and screenplays.  I’ve newspaper articles, press releases, technical documents, and various other forms of non-fiction.

I have not, however, written poetry.  At least not of my own volition.  I’ve studied it, and I’ve taken creative writing courses where I had to write my own.  Or at least try to write my own.  If I’m honest, though (which I’m going to be.  Otherwise, why write this post?), I had no idea what I was doing.

I don’t understand poetry.  Now I can comprehend the meanings of the words.  I’ve read Dante’s Inferno a few times, his entire Divine Comedy at least once, and I’m a fan of Shakespeare’s plays.  But those are longer narratives.  They’re telling me a story.  That I get.  But even those take a while for my brain to wrap around.

I went to see Joss Whedon’s excellent version of Much Ado About Nothing when it was in theaters last Summer, and for about the first five minutes or so, I couldn’t understand a word that was being said.  They were English words.  I could parse them individually.  But the way they are put together in Shakespeare’s dialog left the sentences incomprehensible until suddenly my brain clicked over into Shakespeare mode, and I was able to follow.  This always happens when I see Shakespeare performed.  Understanding his more poetic use of language seems to require my brain to work differently.

Where I run into real trouble is with the short pieces that are intended to get across…something.  Again, I can read and understand the words, and I can appreciate the structure of a sonnet.  But the overall effect of the piece, its rhythm, mood, and such is just lost on me.   I’m completely hopeless when it comes to free verse.  The line breaks seem to be almost random.  Here’s some words.  New line.  Here’s some more words.  New Line.  And so on. 

Poetry, therefore, feels to me like a kind of music that I’m just not equipped to hear.  Since I can’t hear it, I certainly can’t write it.  I was lucky in college that my poetry course asked us to mimic the styles of established poets.  That I could do.  Find a poem, determine if a rhyme scheme exists, calculate how many words were used per line, write something on a new topic using the exact same structure.

Sounds almost robotic, doesn’t it?

(As a side note, I went to my first poetry reading while taking that class.  One of the poets reading was a very sweet older lady.  She looked like a real life version of Mrs. Claus.  She got up to the podium and read some of the most sexually explicit material I had ever heard.  It was yet another example for me of one of life’s basic truths: outer appearances tell you nothing about a person.)

Poets mystify me.  I just don’t think about or see the world the same way they do, I guess.  For me, everything is a story.  If someone asks me if I’m wearing a new shirt, they’re liable to end up stick for five minutes as I relate just how I obtained that particular garment.  I like narratives with beginnings, middles, ends, and characters.  I just don’t know where poetry comes from.  Earlier this week, Corinne posted a poem dedicated to her cat.  She may have considered it just a quick bit of fun, but I read it and wondered how she thought to structure it that way in the first place.  It may as well be a foreign language.

I do wonder if there is something different inside my brain that makes it impossible for me to really get poetry.  I have a similar issue with music.  I listen to and enjoy music, but if you ask me to find the beat, I can’t.  I can remember song lyrics, but it’s rote memorization without any comprehension of what the song is actually about. 

While I am impressed by poets, people who can compose their own music absolutely astound me.  That might as well be sorcery.  A songwriter can develop a melody that no one has ever heard before in his/her head and then figure out which notes various instruments should play when?  Incredible.  And then for lyrics, they basically write a poem that fits with their music.  How?  How does that happen?!?  I absolutely cannot comprehend it.

For all I write, there will always be this aspect of it that I am closed out of, which I find both interesting and disheartening.  I’m fascinated at the apparently different way a poet’s mind works than mine, but it saddens me that after years (decades really) of reading everything from Doctor Seuss to Dante and from Shel Silverstein to Shakespeare that I still don’t really get it.

- Alan Decker

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