I've recently started getting into reading poetry again - something I haven't done in a while. I'm working through Birthday Letters, a collection of poems written by English poet laureate (now deceased) Ted Hughes about his wife, the immensely brilliant but troubled Sylvia Plath.
Birthday Letters chronicles their disastrous relationship from the first pre-meeting as Fulbright Scholars to the pain he experienced after her suicide at the tender age of 30. He described feeding their infant son in his high chair:
"Your son's eyes...would become so perfectly your eyes, became wet jewels, the hardest substance of the purest pain"
While there are many Hughes detractors who say that he caused her suicide with his repeated infidelities, those words leave no room for doubt about the intensity of his love for Plath.
I find that there is a satisfaction to reading poetry, a different sort of bliss from what you feel reading novels, short stories or non-fiction, but one where you can savour the pure pleasure of language. Poems are like brief, torrid affairs. They are stories condensed, intensified and magnified by the nature of their brevity.
Poets don't have the luxury of 100,000 words to slowly weave a story, set the scene, reveal character motivation and pace plot tension. Instead, they have a few hundred words, if that. So I admire great poetry because I think it's an exercise in simplicity and self-editing.
Take this poem by William Butler Yeats, one of my lasting favourites (titled When You Are Old):
"When you are old and grey and full of sleep, and nodding by the fire, take down this book, and slowly read...how many loved your moments of glad grace, and loved your beauty with love false or true, but one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, and loved the sorrows of your changing face"
It's an entire love story told in 100 words, clean, simple and yet the effect is like a sucker punch that lingers long after the page has been turned and the book put away. And then there is the dark beauty of Plath's Daddy, in which she draws parallels between her relationship with her father and that with Hughes:
"I made a model of you, a man in black with a Meinkampf look, and a love of the rack and screw, and I said I do, I do"
Then there is Anne Sexton's powerful Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward, which talks about the pain of closed adoption in the 1960s:
"You tip like a cup; your head moving to my touch, you sense the way we belong, but this is an institution bed, you will not know me very long"
I also found of particular interest the link between the writing of poetry and mental illness. A 2001 study by Professor James C Kaufman of 1629 writers found that female poets are more likely to display symptoms of mental illness. It's called the "Sylvia Plath effect". Aristotle claimed a connection between philosophers, politicians, poets, artists and what he called a tendency toward "melancholia".
While I don't necessarily agree that there is a link between poetry and madness, sadly, I know far too few readers who can't or won't get stuck into a good book of poems. I think there are several reasons for it, but mainly, people seem afraid of poetry.
I've had friends who tell me they think poems are incomprehensible, and more than a few who seem to think that poetry is the slothful writer's way out, which of course, is ridiculous. It's like saying that all visual artists who don't paint are lazy.
A lot of readers have had bad experiences with being forced to read certain poems in school. Analysing a piece of poetry to death is probably the quickest way to detesting it. A poem is a collection of images which are to be slowly savoured and pondered over, and often, it's best for some lines to be left a little mystical - so as not to remove the magic completely.
What do you think of poetry? If you read it, who are some of your favourite poets?