“Language as a tool to manipulate both mind and heart…snapshot of the human condition; of our mortality reflected in nature; the staying of time.”
Alice B. Fogel
Why poetry matters
“Poetry will bring you significant new interactions with the world around you, with ideas and sensations, with yourself and others,” poet Alice B. Fogel wrote in Strange Terrain:A Poetry Handbook for the Reluctant Reader (Hobblebush Books, 2009), “–not to mention that it will literally expand your mind. According to a study published in New Scientist, billions of neurons per millisecond light up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve whenever we read poetry.”
Fogel is not a lone voice in arguing that poetry is a profoundly important human art. All through history, people have readily accepted the truth that poetry matters. According to poetry.org, “Poetry as an art form predates literacy and …the greater part of the world’s sacred scriptures are made up of poetry rather than prose.”
As Maria Popova at brainpickings.org says, “What poetry does…is slow down the spinning world and dilate the pupil of attention so that the infinite becomes comprehensible.” In other words, poetry matters because poetry, like music, calls our attention to life’s great mysteries–mortality, love, hope, gratitude and grief–and helps us make sense of our most important experiences. So, then…
Why is poetry not more popular?
Fogel explains it’s because, “There is something about poetry, about how it was taught, about its reputation as encoded messages only a certain kind of person can crack, that makes… people…squirm with a sense of inadequacy, burst into sheer belligerence, or quietly avoid it like the plague, especially in public.”
Have your education and your cultural milieu robbed you of an important relationship? Do you sometimes experience a wistful feeling that you would like to relate to “mysterious missives from the hearts and minds of others?” If you are thinking, maybe I could learn, then Fogel’s book Strange Terrain is available to teach you…
How to read poetry
Fogel describes her book as a self-help manual for people with “Poem Traumatic Stress Disorder.” She structures her help for the poetry non expert around three premises, which she calls demystification, information, and remystification.
Think of Fogel as a Poetry Outfitter, a capable expert who will supply a map and provisions for your journey. She will guide you as you become comfortable with, and find comfort in, poetry. Her demystification section is like a map for finding your way into new territory. The information section equips you with the necessary poetry gear to give you confidence and ensure success. Finally, the remystification section shows you how to think like an explorer, to retain a beginner’s mind and sense of adventure when encountering a poem. A sense of adventure–of not knowing the territory–is the most important premise to embrace when reading poems.
Nobel Laureate and Polish Poet Wislawa Szymborska clarifies that it is our lack of certitude, our “not knowing,” which “expands our hearts and gives us the capacity for astonishment,” essential to the experience of poetry. And in Fogel’s own poem How to Live, she implies that the paradox of authentic living, is that we do it without knowing exactly what we’re doing.
All things are of two
natures. For identification,
one remains with the body, held
for safekeeping. The second
is for the living, for the knowing
how to live
without knowing how.
When we are certain we know the way, the answers, the secret of how to live our lives, we are probably living small lives. We probably are lacking enough of that unknowable mystery we call love. The loveliest thing about Strange Terrain, in my opinion, is that the examples are all Fogel’s own poems. If you’ve ever wondered what a poet thinks about when writing and revising a poem, this is the book for you. Which brings us to…
Why read poetry?
If you believe living a large life is about how much stuff you amass, you’re reading the wrong blog. In my worldview, largesse is about responsibility, which is to say love and, “variations of love as well, including wonder, celebration, excitement, awe, prayerfulness, or gratitude.” Fogel believes (as I do) that poetry gives us larger lives. Reading poems teaches us to take responsibility for the quality of our experiences, and reading teaches us empathy.
“You are half responsible (and fully rewarded) for making emotions in a poem come alive again,” she wrote. And remember, her book outfits you with the gear you need to bring a poem to life. “Successful interaction with poems (or fiction, for that matter) is rooted as much in learning empathy as literary skills. Perhaps it is because the two are so linked that reading is such a moral and enlightening activity.”
So, if you desire a more enlightened life, and if Alice B. Fogel and I have convinced you that becoming a reader of poetry (or to returning to poetry) will help you reach that goal, then get Strange Terrain here.
And below are three of my favorite poetry anthologies which pair well with Strange Terrain. Do you, or will you, read poetry? Why or why not?
Photos via VisualHunt