Tell Me the Truth: Do You Read Poetry?

The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it. — Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

Back in May my thesis advisor devised a brilliant plan to get me to present at the Kevadkool convention he was hosting at his summer home. He said, “If you do this, you don’t have to take my exam.” (I was taking his course on poetics for fun.) And I said, “Done.” Bring on the public speaking embarrassment!

So there I was, the only American in the bunch and one of three non-Estonians, giving a presentation on an Estonian poet, using a ton of linguistic terminology that those literary people probably didn’t care about, trying to remember to circle things on the paper behind me. But as I continued, I felt more at home. Poetry was my game, I knew. Poetry is what I love. Poetry, whether I write it well or not, is the force behind my stay in Estonia. No complaints here.

I survived. I got an A. I even made a friend. All benefits.

However, in addition to giving my presentation, I met two visiting-from-America poets: John and Joan Digby. Mr. Digby (who is not originally American, by the way), upon meeting me and learning that I write poetry as well, said immediately (with the honesty so common in the old), “Poetry! Everyone writes poetry, but no one reads it!”

True that, I thought. But isn’t that why poetry sometimes feels like it’s the truest thing in the world? However I like to play devil’s advocate, so I said instead, “I read it.”

Photo Credit: Annika Markson 2014

John and Joan Digby; Photo Credit: Annika Markson 2014

And indeed, after Mr. and Mrs. Digby read some of their poems, talked about their writing life, gave us free copies of some of their poems, and then signed them, I promptly began to read his work. Because I was curious, because I love poetry — but mostly because I wanted to know what kind of poetry a man writes when he’s sure that no one reads it. (His work is truly imaginary and thought-inducing, by the way.)

We’re all poets of a sort, we wordsmiths. We lie about a lot of things when we create our stories, but writing often forces us to be honest with ourselves. That’s more difficult sometimes. And so perhaps it’s the thought that no one will read my poetry that enables me to write my thoughts so freely, the feelings I wouldn’t expose anywhere else. Perhaps, it’s as Margaret Atwood says: To write the truth, assume it will never be read.

But, on the flip side, how many people actually read poetry? Of all the thousands of amateur poets, how many actually buy it, take it home, read it? Are we wordsmiths really just writing out into a silent literary wasteland? Do people fear reading the truth so much that they buy into the commercial mountain range instead? Do we crave lies so we can disregard the truth entirely?

I’d like to think that’s not true: that there will always be the handful willing to face the truth, to write the truth, to ask the complex questions. I’d like to think that there are more than just a handful of people who still read poetry. Alas, those are my controversial questions of the week for you guys. Let me know:

What’s the truth of poetry for you?


Most evenings I climb my torso
In search of myself always slipping
Down into avenues of sunlight
— John Digby from “Out of My Head Stalks” from Sailing Away from Night

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11 thoughts on “Tell Me the Truth: Do You Read Poetry?

  1. I read a lot of it, more recently. I just love how other people work words, how they play with them. Also just how sometimes it screams across the void. Its funny though because the irony for me is that I assumed until recently my own work is little read or read by the few who would like my style. It’s a strange thing.

    • Yes, me too! Wordsmithing at its finest is found in poetry, I think.

      I know what you mean. I assume, even as I write my work, even if it gets published, that no one is going to read it but a few close friends. But we never know, I guess. 🙂

  2. I do read poetry – not just on the internet, but I also search for poetry in literary journals and I buy poetry books. It is true that poetry books are usually a lot more expensive than novels, but they sell so few copies that I think it’s justified. It’s a shame that we can’t find many poetry books (other than the classics and what is covered by the national curriculum) in libraries.

    • Yes, I completely agree! It would be great if more modern collections of poetry were available in libraries. That would maybe open the venue to potential readers who wouldn’t normally go out of their way to purchase it. My guess is that a lot of people are scarred from having to read classic poetry in school (though I love many of the classics) and then shy away from it in the future — simply based on association.

      Literary journals are my go-to source at the moment, but I try to stay up-to-date with what’s out there in book format, too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. I grew up reading poetry from my stepmom’s collection (and still revisit my favorite books every time I’m at my parents’ house). I read it now when I need to be soothed. I read yours every chance I get. 🙂 Reading it out loud is best, in my opinion. But I don’t read enough of it. I heard author Roz Morris say in an interview that she reads poetry to help her switch from her writing day job to her novel-writing.

    • There is definitely a certain magic to hearing poetry rather than just reading it. Sometimes, when I’m alone, I read it out loud, just to hear the rhythm. It’s, as you said, quite soothing. Also, as a bridge from one one realm of writing to the next, poetry is (often) short enough to get the gears turning.

  4. I read old Australian poetry, those poems with pioneer and war themes. I read my father’s poetry book from WWII. I’ve read a little bit of French poetry because I’ve had to translate it or analyse it, eg Demain dès l’aube. And I have a poem on my fridge by E.E. Cummings, “I carry your heart”. If a poem’s too deep or obscure I usually don’t finish it. But I love rhythm and rhyme and will read such a poem, usually out loud, even if I don’t make a big connection.

    • Oh, wow. Australian poetry. I can’t actually think of any Australian poems/poets (old or otherwise) that I’ve read. Do you have any recommendations? Poetry is hard to translate, I find. (Well, translation in itself is hard.) But to capture the nuance and meaning it carries, well, I’m still trying to manage that with the translations I’ve done of some Estonian poetry.

      I completely understand. I don’t think poetry should be something only accessible to the elite, for instance. And if it’s one of those poems where the annotations are longer than the poem itself, then I’m more than likely to give it a pass, too.

      • Hi Michelle. Try reading Clancy of the Overflow out loud. A.B. Paterson (Banjo Paterson) is the poet – 1889 is the year. There are a few stanzas by various poets of WWII poetry on my blog – I posted them a couple of years ago but they’re still there. Red Kane of 69 is a favourite of mine.

  5. Poetry has historically been a difficult genre for me to grasp mentally. I have been trying more and more frequently to open myself to reading the works of others, to really understand and capture the emotion in their words. For me, there is something much more visceral and elemental about poetry, and that was has kept me from abandoning it despite my troubles grasping it. It appears to be the purest of communications from the soul. The short segmented lines flowing together, each on providing another piece to a puzzle, a chance to pause after each one for just a moment and allow the subconscious to add meaning and depth to that line and all the lines before it.

    In a rather serendipitous manner, I have come across a totally unrelated blog post this morning on the power of listening as opposed to hearing. A light bulb has gone on over my head after reading your post Michelle. In past attempts to read poetry, I was focusing too much on the words and applying meaning to them with my conscious mind. I was hearing the words, not listening to them. When I went back and read a few pieces of poetry while allowing the flow of ideas and thoughts to be handled by my subconscious, I began to experience the magic of poetry.

    So, do I read a lot of poetry now? Admittedly, no. Will I be exploring it more in the future? Unequivocally, yes 😉 Thanks for such a motivating and inspiring post!

    • That’s excellent, Dave. Poetry wasn’t really something I got into until I went to university. Reading the classics in school as a kid doesn’t always foster a love for the genre (though I’m absolutely in love with Tennyson), and as I said to a previous commenter, I think people remember the experience in a negative way; this carries over into later life as well.

      You’re right though — poetry is about feeling it, rather than understanding it, listening rather than hearing. The best comparison I can make is how I feel when I write it myself: almost as if I’m outside myself, reaching. There’s something magical about the space I enter when I’ve hit my stride. When I start thinking too much, though, I typically lose the poem. So when we’re reading something meant to provoke emotion, meant to play with language and sound, we’ve got to step outside ourselves and focus on a point beyond what’s actually there. You’re more likely to find the meaning without looking for it. 🙂

      As always thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

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