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Poetry 101

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As a teenager, I developed a special fascination for Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer’s Rimas y Leyendas. I would read those poems over and over again, and daydream about the moment my crush would recite me Rhyme 21 while laying on the grass on a sunny Saturday afternoon in a park in Barcelona;

¿Qué es poesía?, dices mientras clavas
en mi pupila tu pupila azul.
¡Qué es poesía! ¿Y tú me lo preguntas?
Poesía… eres tú.

(For English readers:)

What is poetry? you ask, while fixing
your blue pupil on mine.
What is poetry! And you are asking me?
Poetry… is you.

My love for Bécquer made me want to explore more; I didn’t want to accept Bécquer was the only author in my life who could write those beautiful pieces (and I got tired of waiting for my crush to get around to reading him), so I decided to do some basic research on my mother’s bookshelf. A whole new world was waiting for me represented by the authors in the literary circle of Generación del ‘27 (Generation of ‘27), most of the Generación del ‘98 (Generation of ‘98), and later on latin-American authors like Pablo Neruda, or Catalan poets like Maria Mercè Marçal, or Vicent Andrés Estellés.

Poetry is a very different experience from prose, as it is, arguably, even more centred in the nuances of the words and the structure of the text. In my opinion, starting to read poetry in another language is like starting to read poetry again; one needs to get used to and understand new ways of structure, meaning and sound at a different level than in prose.

My life as a poetry reader was comfortable and enjoyable, as I spent years going through all the classics. But good times don’t last forever, meaning that I moved out of the country, which made my access to Spanish and Catalan poetry more difficult. At first, I took it as a chance to expand my horizons –  I thought “hey, this is a great opportunity to read poetry in another language”. But I catastrophically failed with this. I just didn’t get foreign (aka. non-Spanish) poetry. So, for some time, I stopped reading poetry.

I think that the problem wasn’t poetry in itself, but rather me not looking in the right place. Poetry is a very different experience from prose, as it is, arguably, even more centred in the nuances of the words and the structure of the text. In my opinion, starting to read poetry in another language is like starting to read poetry again; one needs to get used to and understand new ways of structure, meaning and sound at a different level than in prose. So it makes sense to be cautious and meticulously choose the first reads in poetry as some kind of introduction to a whole new world that needs to be explored one step at a time, learning from experience first before diving into more complicated reads.

To some extent, I feel that this whole state of confusion (and frustration) towards poetry is a recurrent situation for some people. For that, I would like to present a short list of recommendations that I wish someone have given me a couple of years ago, when I would either get lost, confused and frustrated in the poetry section of any bookshop, or I’d end up skipping those sections altogether:

The classics

The Collected poems – Sylvia Plath

Mirror
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever you see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful-
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

Sylvia Plath’s The Collected Poems are some of the most beautiful, cruel and emotional poetry I have ever read in my life. The way Plath lets her own feelings go and prints them in her poems is unique, exposing such strong emotions that are usually hidden – which makes the whole experience of reading Plath a bit scary at some points. More than anything, it is her capacity to describe so accurately how she feels about her own existence that gives these poems such a rich intensity.

Her writing is flawless and complex, which at some point might be challenging for the reader. However, the main difficulty I have found reading Plath’s poems has been the brutality of her words and the mixture of emotions that they awaken in me. For that, I have always read her in small doses, and mixing the reading of her earlier poetry, which is more centered in producing beauty in words and talking about more universal topics. Whereas the later poem,s which she produced before her death in 1963, are clearly more focused on her inner world and ways to express her pain and depression.

Songs of Innocence and of Experience – William Blake

Songs_of_innocence_and_of_experience,_page_39,_The_Sick_Rose_(Fitzwilliam_copy)
William Blake was quite direct when it came to illustrating his poems

Last summer, while lost somewhere on the East Coast of the United States, I found the most amazing second-hand bookstore. Two floors of cheap, beautiful editions of all the classics in western literature one can imagine. Going through the section of poetry (trying to overcome my fear of it), I found a beautiful copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, with a colour version of the engravings he made for the poems. William Blake had always been on my list of “how is it possible that you haven’t read this yet”, but I couldn’t help but fear that his poetry, being a classic of the Romantic age, would be inaccessible (i.e boring because I would get 20% of it) to me. Nevertheless, I knew I had 8 long hours of Greyhound bus ahead of me, so I decided to give it a shot.

Songs of Innocence and of Experience is an accessible introductory reading, as its pleasant drawings illustrate the poems and give the reader an idea of the subjects behind it and illuminate Blake’s masterful words. The way the poet challenges some of the values ruling his society makes it an interesting reading from a historical perspective, reflecting on values and problems, some of them still present in our contemporary society.

The piece is divided into two parts, the first one being Songs of Innocence, where Blake reflects on the concept of innocence both on a positive and negative side; the positives being related to happiness and childhood, while the negatives are more focused on the relationship of innocence to vulnerability, or even ignorance. In Songs of Experience, on the other hand, his poems seem to revolve around more complex issues and dilemmas present in his society, in some way questioning the concept of experience in the context of human relationships.

The non-westerns

3 Tang Dynasty Poets

On leaving the Wang River retreat
At last I put my carriage in motion
Go sadly out of the ivied pinces
Can I bear to leave these blue hills?
And the green stream – what of that?

3 Tang Dynasty Poets is a selection of poems by Wang Wei, Li Po, and Tu Fu, three poets that lived between the year 699 and 770. Nature and calmness revolve around the work of these three poets, where natural elements like mountains, trees and flowers, the landscapes forming those elements, and the passage of the seasons are in the centre of their work.

Still, in an accessible way, these poets transmit a feeling of comfort and wellness in the reader by focusing their work on the beauty of nature, rather than on more abstract concepts or topics. In that way, that is the main difference with the rest of the books recommended in this article – the reading of 3 Tang Dynasty Poets is an easy, pleasant and simple idea with the one and only goal of admiring nature.

Lips too chilled – Matsuo Bashō

Matsuo Bashō’s Lips too chilled is a selection of haikus by a seventeenth-century Buddhist poet. His haikus can be understood both as an ode to nature and to the human being. The creation of these beautiful haikus reflects their content, which is focused on the beauty of nature, in such a way that they transport the reader to a similar state of contemplation as the author was likely in himself while writing.

At the same time Bashō manages to introduce a series of haikus revolving on his everyday life in the most mundane of ways – he talks about drinking sake, or celebrating New Year’s; and, making the whole experience complete, relating some of the pieces to emotions such as sadness, but also creating small anecdotes and introducing moments of humour.

800px-Katsushika_Hokusai,_Goten-yama_hill,_Shinagawa_on_the_Tōkaidō,_ca._1832
Sometimes I like to imagine the poet Bashō and the artist Hokusai hanging out in the countryside, writing, painting and drinking sake

The contemporaries

Dear Boy – Emily Berry

When, over a year ago or so ago, a friend of mine came to me and lent me this book without me having asked to borrow it (I didn’t even know who this woman was) and told me it was an incredible piece, I genuinely thought it would be one more book in my pile to read that I would either forget about it and give it back without having read it.

Thankfully, that did not turn out to be the case.

Emily Berry’s debut is so carefully written, yet so natural and beautiful to read. The way she presents life experiences makes the reading of Dear Boy a torrent of emotions. Through her poems, Berry is able to show her more personal side as a writer in the sense that her pieces are focused on small bits of everyday life. Still, she is able to connect with the reader on a universal level by taking everyday situations and making the reader connect with the feelings they evoke.

The author experiments with structure, language and topics, yet still makes it accessible to the non-specialised reader, keeping a hold of their full attention.

Hold your own – Kate Tempest

Sigh
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by payment plans

Kate Tempest’s Hold your own is a powerful work based on the greek myth of the blind prophet Tiresias. In this book, the poet and rapper takes as an inspiration this figure of greek mythology and re-tells his story, but it also takes it further: dividing the piece into four parts; childhood, manhood, womanhood, and blind profit. Tempest takes the central topics of the myth, such as blindness, and develops a sincere and compelling poetic account of being a young person in the 21st century.

Tempest’s poems are rich and complex in both language and theme; yet her approach to it is one of brutally honest. The focus here is on human connection, in a way that makes it very accessible to the reader. Topics like youth, poverty, love, sex or the process of growing up are treated with emotional complexity entangled with an autobiographical perspective. But this also creates space for a wide-ranging social critique and reflections on a more collective level.

Finding the right poetry to read might sometimes be a difficult task, but once one gets used to browsing around and discovers which elements of poetry one appreciates (the way topics are boiled down in sometimes a couple of lines, the way the authors play with words, the different structure compared to novels, short stories, etc), the whole experience becomes as enjoyable and addictive as reading prose. Being still in the phase of discovery, I’ve found it very useful to go through second hand poetry books or other pieces that I actually don’t know that much about (i.e I left my “how is it possible that you haven’t read this yet” list at home), and found pieces with similar topics or style that I have enjoyed before (which in my case has led to me to build a small section in my bookshelf on poetry revolving around nature, but hey, what can I do, I enjoy those flowers and mountains written down on paper).

Neus spends a considerable amount of her time thinking about Clarice Lispector in general and Sylvia Plath’s poems in particular. She’s a firm supporter of the Weil team in the which-Simone-is-better battle. She once read Infinite Jest and still talks about it today. She’s one half of the translation column Translation Tuesday, tends to overuse the word “nice” and apparently the pronoun “she” when she writes her bio.

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