Appreciating Poetry

I read Autism vs. Poetry by Peter Seebach recently and it got me thinking about my own appreciation of some poetry. I say some because there is a whole host of material I find impenetrable because the meanings are too far removed from my direct interpretation of the words.

I had some limited exposure to poetry in English lessons at school. Some, such as Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, present me with few problems. This poem in particular lends itself to a literal reading; it conjures up vivid images but is purely descriptive. However I don’t have an emotional reaction to the words beyond delight at the skilful use of language, the economy with which so much is represented with so few words and the regularity of the syllabic structure. Mine is an appreciation of its technical merits.

I think this is why some poetry misses the mark entirely with me. Take Philip Larkin’s Home is so Sad. “Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,/ Shaped to the comfort of the last to go/ As if to win them back. […]”. This appears to be ascribing emotion and intentional actions to the inanimate. “But a home’s just a pile of bricks and mortar,” I protest. “It doesn’t make sense.” So although the words fit together into coherent sentences I face a gulf in understanding between the literal interpretation and the opaque metaphor and my only reaction is puzzlement.

I have seen people react emotionally to poetry and other art (music, painting, sculpture). I can’t understand the mechanism through which this happens. It appears that there is no conscious analysis of the work; it’s something like a “gut reaction”: instinctive. I don’t experience that at all. For example I visited the Louvre once and saw the Mona Lisa. I’ll describe it to you. It’s about 2 feet wide by 3 tall. It’s mounted on a wall behind a very substantial-looking glass screen and additionally there is a barrier that prevents you getting too close. The image is dark-looking, mostly greens, yellows and browns, and shows a dark-haired woman’s head and upper body. I just remember wondering what all the fuss was about! No emotional reaction to it, you see, and I don’t find something that’s just a picture of a woman to be very interesting.

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